Latest Hotel Review

    Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia

    Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia (Patrick Goff)

    1000 732 Daniel Fountain

    I’ve lost count of the number of trips I have made into what we must now call Central Europe over the last ten years. A fascination with the changes being wrought in the formerly oppressed states of what was called ‘Eastern Europe’ has grown into a love of the sense of history contained in the architecture and landscapes.

    This, my second visit to Slovakia, was sparked in part by Kempinski’s announcement of the opening of their Grand Hotel in the mountain resort of Strbske Pleso. It was all about driving through the High Tatras, the mountains that span the border between Poland and Slovakia, due south of Krakow, although my ultimate destination was the Angelo in Katowice.

    Long a traditional resort for Poles, the area has spectacular scenery of mountains and lakes and the clean air has been seen as a remedy for the ills of city life since the 19th Century. The drive from Austria through the mountains and across Slovakia was beautiful, the roads quiet.
    The Grand Hotel started life as a great residence visited by European royalty and morphed into a sanatorium in the peoples republic. It has now become a people’s playground again, albeit with a level of luxury that was probably undreamed of by previous users.As we drove up the mountain road there were tantalising glimpses of turrets and roofs along the hill crests.

    Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia

    The main building has been painstakingly restored with the help of the discovery of light fittings and original colour schemes protected first from invaders and then from state confiscation. The development has been extended along the lakeside by the addition of apartments that will be serviced from the hotel once completed, sharing with the hotel spectacular views across the lake to the mountains in one direction and over the valley in the other. All around are B&B’s and hotels under refurbishment.

    Time warped hotels await attention as the state struggles to identify the descendants of owners long gone. Many died in concentration or labour camps or fled from repression. The task is complicated by destroyed documentation and forged documentation alike, so there are still boarded up hotels with hints of previous glories perhaps from the 1930’s lining the roads through an area that even in winter is served by an efficient mountain railway and roads I am told are nearly always passable.

    The local community has now taken possession of a ski jump built to service Olympic competitions but then allowed to fall into disrepair. The redevelopment of the ski trails and the infrastructure to create another fine European winter sports area is now well under way, with Kempinski leading the the way with this impressive property.

    Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia

    The status of the hotel was marked by a pale blue Bentley parked in the entrance as we arrived, and the area was thronged with families enjoying a stroll around the lake behind the hotel. The views are spectacular, indeed Slovakia is very beautiful, the mountains even more so, rising to over 9,000 feet/2,700 metres in this region. In the typically changeable August weather we were able to watch lightning playing along the mountains peaks across the lake from the windows of our bedroom.

    The Soviet influence is now only apparent in small ways – the hat worn by the porter for example being one of those outsized round Soviet style peaked army hats, an outsized wagon wheel of a hat. Behind the reception counter the striking red dressed Kempinski ‘woman in red’ stood ready to answer all our questions as we checked in. Welcome was five star and one of the memorable things about this hotel was the GM, Gerd Ruge, who’s wealth of experience made a distinct difference to how the design worked, and who stamped his personal style on the hotel as the best GM’s do.
    The reception lobby is large and stylish with a traditional reception desk down one side. Guests are offered a welcoming drink and are then shown to their rooms.

    Proximity key cards are used but amusingly one of Herr Ruge’s angry moments was when I asked why it showed a red housekeeper when the room was ready to make up, and he revealed he had repeatedly tried to resolve the working of the indicator panel outside the room door as the colour was showing wrongly. I remember reading once how fatalities were caused in hospitals because engineers use red and green in the reverse way to most people, causing confusion with operators. Green means all OK no action needed, red that something needs doing in this reverse thinking, and it seems the well engineered product adheres to this rather than orienting for us normal mortals for whom green means go, red stop.

    Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia

    The buildings are long and straggling, producing changes in level as well as twisting as they follow the line of the lakeside. The forests around the lake have a scattering of villas, some abandoned and overgrown as the state struggles to establish normal ownership patterns. Lakeside paths are busy but on normal workdays and early morning/late evenings a few joggers are all that disturb the wild life. With windows open the room echoed mainly to the sounds of bird song and raindrops, and the tradition of the buildings as a sanatorium suits it well to be a spa resort. The twisting of corridors and changes in level made this an interesting building to walk through and corridor view lines were always short.

    The bedrooms are well laid out and furnished, with rugs laid on timber floors. Although the wardrobe was large there was not quite enough drawer space – but then travelling for weeks by car does leave me with quite a large amount to place in an hotel bedroom. The timber floors were broad real timber planks, a little spoiled by faulty maintenance, with the cleaning liquid used leaving a kind of bloom over the plank and not cleaning it effectively either. The bathrooms were truly luxurious, well planned and laid out with soaking tubs and separate walk in showers. The impressive iteration of this in the room for those with disabilities gave one of the most luxurious versions of a DDA room I have seen.

    The use of timber in the schemes was extensive and successful and the sophisticated luxury feel was harmonious and restful – no shrieking colours to scream and assault the eye yet the variety of colour tone and texture gave sufficient interest to the eye for the rooms to appear very stylish.
    This subtlety in the use of materials continued throughout the public areas, the restraint allowing the real fire in the bar lounge for example not just to register visually though its rosy glow, but to literally glow against the traditional polished timber wall panels, its crackling logs providing an aural and olfactory experience to match the visual sophistication.

    The restaurant was on the first floor along with the function room dining and the kitchens, its own log fire burning in the evenings. In the restaurant the skill of Herr Ruge shone through. He had created a small play area for children to one side of the restaurant and whilst they played the tables around were filled with their families , parents acting as a barrier between their offspring and other guests. It was subtly done by the staff, but seemed to work to the benefit of children (who became engrossed in each other) their parents (who watched but rarely needed to intervene) and the other guests.

    Grand Hotel Kempinski, Slovakia

    The restaurant was on the front of the hotel and at first floor gave spectacular views across the valley. The layout, positioning of the waiter stations, separation of the tables and its height gave a sense of space and luxury. The light fittings had been rescued from where they were hidden in 1938 and restored again grace the room. Note of caution – if anyone offers you a Slovakian spirit aperitif beware, damn things remove your throat lining!
    Private dining ranged from a wood panelled room with views across the lake to a small turret room offering romantic dining for two at the very top of the hotel with 360° panoramic views all around. In addition there is a healthy eating area in the spa and leisure complex.

    The spa and leisure complex is large and comfortable. The pool has views to the mountains and the lake and there are plenty of loungers and small cabana style areas for day long lounging. The reception desk bar counter an office are grouped together , minimising staffing needs, and there is a small gym and well designed treatment rooms for massage and other therapies.

    Kempinski have a gem of a hotel in a fantastic position. Location, location, location is the mantra, and this is wonderfully located to take advantage of developments in the High Tatras, one of Europe’s remaining underdeveloped scenic areas. As the popularity of this area grows and it increases in prosperity so the hotel will inevitably prosper.

    © Words and Pictures Patrick Goff. From a visit in August 2010

    Hotel Oscar, Madrid

    Hotel Oscar, Madrid (Patrick Goff)

    1000 423 Daniel Fountain

    Many things can drive the genesis of a new hotel chain, but mostly it is driven by personal views of owners. Room Mate was a response by three friends in Madrid to their inability to find an hotel that satisfied their view of what an hotel should be. Setting out objectively to list what they were looking for they created the first Room Mate Hotel. Following a well-trodden path, they looked for city centre ‘location, location, location’. They wanted creative design and value for money, personal service without unnecessary extras, just a good breakfast.

    The formula worked and there are now a dozen hotels in Europe, the US and South America, each with its own personality and each with a person’s name to reinforce the sense of them as individuals. Oscar is the latest of the four Madrid Hotels, opening in a Bauhaus building in Chueca. Lead designer on Oscar was renowned Spanish Interior Designer Tomas Alia.

    Hotel Oscar, Madrid

    Photo from Hotel Oscar website

    The designs for Oscar are youthful, bold and avant-garde, the overall image is sensual and sophisticated. The designer uses subtle variations of finish and texture to enrich the visitor experience.

    The designer tried to create walls of contrast, using different materials to bring different qualities. In the public areas the lighting plays a principal role in softly changing the colours and subliminally transforming the space.

    Hotel Oscar, Madrid

    Photo from Hotel Oscar website

    There are 75 rooms and suites arranged over seven colour–coded floors, which look out over the Plaza Vazquez de Melia. The predominantly white bedrooms all feature cool contemporary furniture and striking design flourishes such as bright block colour, bold patterns or giant monotone photographic images. If you want a night in, or a bite to eat before you go out and party, there is a restaurant, cocktail bar and rooftop terrace bar with plunge pool.

    With curling organic forms allied to light and subtle colour accents Oscar breaks away from the vernacular to introduce a new aesthetic.

    Royal Spa, Kitzbuhel

    Royal Spa, Kitzbühel (Patrick Goff)

    1000 666 Daniel Fountain

    Any ski hotel will fill if it is positioned at the bottom of the ski-lifts. The Royal Spa sits on the edge of Jochberg, just 7 km from Kitzbühel, and at the bottom of not one but two ski lifts. As Mr. Hilton famously said ‘location, location, location’. It provides the ultimate in skiing luxury. The trick for most is not filling rooms whilst the ski season is in full swing, but in filling rooms out of season. Kitzbühel is one of Austria’s main ski centres, a busy trendy place to be off piste, in summer still busy but still presenting hotels with the same problem – what do you do without snow?

    For Cube the answer lay in attracting mountain bikers and the hotel was structured with the cycle path within the atrium so that the bikes could be taken to the rooms and the audience was clearly defined. Here in the atmosphere of luxury and indulgence the task is much harder – five star resort luxury and Lycra do not easily go together, although the hotel does offer mountain bike hire as part of the draw.

    Golf too makes up part of the attractions on offer, with four courses in Kitzbühel and the hotel constructing its own driving range, putting and chipping greens and a golf simulator with a golf pro in attendance. Curiously Austrians are required to taken an exam before being allowed to golf on the country’s courses – a measure perhaps of how elitist the sport is here? More likely a measure of how little flat land there is on which to build a golf course.

    Royal Spa, Kitzbuhel

    The Royal Spa has, as its name suggests, created as a part of its answer to attracting the guests one of Europe’s largest and most luxurious Spas. Here we are not just talking about massage or beauty treatment, although both are covered, but the full sybaritic experience with added attractions, such as plastic surgery to extend the range of holistic cosmetic and beauty treatments available.
    The Spa and Leisure areas cover two floors with the Spa and treatment rooms on the lower level. The Reception is supersized with a large sales counter for beauty products and a waiting area.

    Twin corridors lead to pampering and treatment rooms, some of which are for couples. Design is sophisticated and the space is broken up by good lighting and changes of surfaces. The range of available treatments is enormous and with a plastic surgeon in attendance for face lifts etc, it extends the range of beauty treatments well beyond what is normally offered in an hotel spa.

    The separation from the Leisure area has enabled the creation of a totally different ambiance in the Spa proper, and it is silent and calming with the mix of sophisticated fabrics and surfaces perfectly enhanced by the lighting. Treatment rooms are also well designed with good indirect lighting, their own showers and good sound insulation.

    Royal Spa, Kitzbuhel
    As well as the more antiseptic treatment rooms there are rooms for couples which have rich loungers with scatter cushions. Apart from the timber front of the reception desk the slightly rustic treatment of the Leisure areas is avoided in favour of black against stone and rich reds of upholstery and paint finishes. Access is through the dedicated lift and its own lobby, so staff have easy control of the entrance area from the front desk, enabling privacy and security to be maintained quite simply. The upper Leisure area has two pools – an indoor pool and a separate pool outdoors. The outdoor pool can be entered from the inside for those hardy souls who like to swim throughout the snowy Austrian winter. The design of the upper area is curious.

    The ceiling echoes a wave form, but the room is divided by partitions that appear to be a pastiche of the Austrian local vernacular homes own wood stores. Maybe there is some local tradition that I am unaware of whose symbology is being echoed, but the use of logs of various kinds along with simple planks to break up a large area is unconvincing. The theme is carried through the front of the areas reception and food counters bringing a slightly primitive touch into an otherwise sophisticated interior space.

    The adjacent bistro area enables guests to spend the day in their ‘cossies’ without venturing into the other areas of the hotel, and the space has large lounging areas, including discreet private cabanas, two seat enclosed chairs and quiet zones to offer alternatives to the pool.

    Royal Spa, Kitzbuhel
    To be honest, I don’t understand the decor around the pool. I understand that desire to use natural materials and even the urge to reflect locale – indeed if that is the intent then I applaud it – but the way in which the timber is used seems to lack finesse to my English eyes. The larch trunks, planks and logs screening the various seating areas around the pool leave me floundering to see the logical underpinnings and the apparent randomness of the arrangement may reflect the random log piles around local homes but leaves me struggling to see the aesthetic. Indeed it leaves me with a strong urge to look for a stove to stoke.

    Yet the designer demonstrates such sophistication in areas such as the signage and the lift lobby that I think the failing must be mine, and must be cultural in some way.

    In the bedroom areas the local timbers have been used again, so the pale bleached look of new knotty pine – sorry, native larch, dominates. The timber has been used freely and works well with the rich gold and red colour scheme of the fabrics and carpets. Until that is it comes to flooring where the softness of the larch means that flooring is of white oak, close in tone, similar in colour but quite different in grain. Further wood confusion strikes in the suite, where the mahogany of traditional furniture competes with the light flooring and bleached look of the larch.

    Detailing in the use of the timber is however beautifully done, and it will no doubt darken with age to the deep honey colour that can be seen in the bars and bistros that dot the area. The light wood has also been used for the furniture throughout, so the overall effect is harmonious.

    IMG_0812
    The bathrooms are a glass cube containing both wash hand basins, soaking tubs and walk-in showers with both rain heads and hand shower units. However the openness of the glass cube has apparently led to guest complaints, so a curtain has been added around the outside – which makes peeking a more voyeuristic pleasure! Bathrooms and bedrooms are both well lit and where the room is a suite there is a separate toilet in the lobby. Red mosaic tiling and rich brown stone complete the bathroom colour scheme. The power of the showers and the fit of the doors combine so that when a shower is on full the door opens slightly with the pressure change letting water accumulate on the bathroom floor, a phenomenon I have noticed in other bathrooms.

    All the bathrooms have balconies which are very private from each other. Deep enough too that even on a wet August afternoon it is possible to sit out, be dry and read a book. The rich curtains provide very effective blackout and room lighting, desk etc are all well judged.
    The timber is again used in the restaurant to create completely panelled spaces. Whilst its lightness works well for eyes whom oak is the most beautiful of timbers, its use falls short of suggesting luxury. Also the use of light oak in the floors only emphasises the difference in grain – it might have been better to use a darker oak against the larch.

    The restaurant opens on a large mezzanine area which is a library by day and a pre-dinner drinks area at night. It also leads through to the well designed and extensive conference facilities which are also a part of the answer to the lack of snow. In Austria there is a surprising amount of industry on the valley floors and the new facilities are already successfully attracting a high level of business. Dramatic lighting pieces bring interest to the lounges and they also have large fireplaces for those coming in off the slopes in winter. The bar is large and carries the red theme through contrasting it against black. Again there are library areas adding a green colour to the mix, and a cigar room too. These area are dramatic with their strong colour and lighting.

    The mezzanine leads through to the lift lobby and a grand staircase from the ground floor. The balcony overlooks the main entrance and the reception lobby below and panels of natural stone contrast against black and red with strong black and white upholstered chairs and red sofas. The interior drama reflects the drama of the building as one approaches from Kitzbühel, its modernity and physical presence dominating the drive across the valley bottom from Kitzbühel to Jochberg. This is a confident modern statement architecturally, backed up by a confident modern set of interiors, both of which have drama and presence in a landscape which is itself full of the drama of the mountains.

    © Words & Pictures Patrick Goff
    Made on a visit in August 2010. The hotel opened in December 2009

    Hotel Angelo, Poland

    Hotel Angelo, Poland (Patrick Goff)

    1000 666 Daniel Fountain

    Set in the Silesian coalfields, Katowice is a city of concrete. Dotted around the skyline of this grey city are sets of the pithead lifting gear. Along its roads march blocks housing the flats, hotels and shopping centres of a modern Polish city. Many are painted and there are new, more stylish blocks added by the banks and other institutions moving here from Western Europe (see Design Club Gallery Designers Sources for images of Katowice).

    One of these new buildings is Vienna International’s new Hotel Angelo. This is another concrete block painted white with sharp painted graphics on the outside, a canopy and a garden area screening an external terrace. Set end on to the main road the hotel has its own underground parking and large coach parking area outside. The glazed canopy of the entrance doors and the sharp external graphics give a hint of the strong colour used throughout a striking interior.

    The painted concrete areas are lifted by sitting on a glass walled lower two floors. The meeting rooms on the rear elevation break out of the block in both scale and colour. This is subtle architecture.

    Like the previously reviewed hotel (the Radisson Blu Frankfurt) this too has concrete columns inside, but these have been placed rationally in relation to the interior. They are slim and painted white so don’t intrusively break up the views through the hotel, nor add industrial touches to the sophisticated interior design. Another similarity with Frankfurt is the staircase to a mezzanine floor off which opens the busy meeting and conference rooms, but its placement is used creatively to break up the space and create a private bar area.

    Hotel Angelo, Poland
    On this large rectangular floor the public areas are defined using colour from lampshades as well as painted walls and backlit counters. Strong fabrics on the seating areas and lines of simple strongly coloured lampshades also help definition of the spaces. The reception desk, back lit in yellow faces the door, with the lifts immediately adjacent allowing simple security oversight, supplementing the use of the electonic room keys to activate the lift.

    The positioning of the desk with the adjacent maitre d’ station at the entrance to the restaurant allows good management control across the whole of the public areas as well as enabling staff to provide an easy smiling service. In this hotel the relationship between design and operation has been worked harmoniously.

    Food is served both in the main restaurant and bistro area adjacent to the bar, as well as within the bar area. Definition of the spaces is managed well through design, with lounge areas in the bar along with a cleanly designed bistro area, complete with its own direct access to the same kitchens as the main restaurant. The design of the bar in particular makes intelligent use of the fragmented spaces available to create different areas. Behind the bar is an area with a large TV screen where events could be followed, such as a football match. In front of the bar is another large screen but the area here is much more like a traditional lounge bar. Between the two is another lounge with the intimacy and style of a private lounge despite being an open space.

    Hotel Angelo, Poland
    Tack on the space of the bistro and the design is stylish, intelligent, provoking a variety of uses by guests without appearing to demarcate. Even the placement of the public access net computers is intelligent, in a separate area under the staircase but overseen by the bar allowing service of food and drinks to be simply delivered.

    The outside terrace works off the main restaurant, screened by bamboo planting and pots. With strong red umbrellas and the same red on the pots against the fresh green of the bamboo, even this area echoes the style of the interior. In the restaurant, the use of red lampshades on tracks means they can be kept directly over the tables, all at the same height; this provides a visual line of repetitive elements that is both attractive and hypnotically fascinating to the eye.

    The two food and drink areas are separated by the reception lobby; definition and visual interest to this area is given again by the use of the lampshades, in this area looking like slightly blowsy upturned umbrellas. In a large concrete defined area like this, the ceiling could easily be a deadening blank canvas, but the interior designer has cleverly made it into an attractive, visually patterned area by both day and night. The use of strong splashes of colour in the shades as well as bold panels of colour on the wall adds to the visual delight as does strong art work.

    The staff seem to take pleasure in their work place too making for a presentation of the hotel on entry, when emerging from the lifts, down the stairs or from the conference zone that is a delight. This whole area is as well designed a space as I have seen in a long time anywhere, and one which the staff obviously feel is enabling to them.

    Hotel Angelo, Poland

    Taking the lift to the bedroom floors shows the same intelligent use of artwork and the spaces. On the executive floors, the large lift lobbies hold easy chairs, some strong artwork and another set of public internet stations. These act as business centres on each business floor. Adjacent to the workstations are placed coffee machines and cups so business guests have the opportunity to gossip at the coffee machine or to take fresh brewed coffee back to their rooms.

    Corridors use the standard black yellow red colour scheme with the door reveals red colouring coupled with the carpet design showing clearly where room doors are an minimising the tunnel effect of lengthy corridors. Plenty of artwork, mainly imagery of Katowice itself adds visual interest to the corridors although the imagery in the lift lobby does more, imparting drama and cleverly sized to almost the same size as the window.

    Bedrooms carry the colour scheme through with the white linens on the beds and the white in the bathrooms making the overall effect crisp and clean. There are plenty of pictures in the bedroom, including one that is only revealed when the curtains are drawn! Bedrooms are the standard hotel bedroom layout and are reasonably sized, but like the ground floor everything has been thought through and positioned properly. The sensibly sized desk has easily accessible sockets.

    Hotel Angelo, Poland
    White wall behind the desk faces the black wall behind the red bedhead. Both are lit by lamps carrying red lightshades with a kind of transition between the two being made by the black and red curtains, which also provides effective blackout.

    Bathrooms follow the current pattern of provision in hotels at this level in that some 65% of bedrooms have shower rooms rather than bathrooms. Bathrooms have the shower over the bath. Both are well sized and carry the colour scheme through, being predominantly white with a red mosaic border half way up the wall and black vanity units. With everything else white or chrome the whole has a sharpness and integrity that the writer found very aesthetically satisfying.

    Coming into an hotel at this level so well thought out brings a sigh of relief and appreciation by comparison with the groping that can characterise so many, more ambitious, schemes in supposedly better hotels.

    If all Angelo’s are going to be like this then Vienna International had better get on and build more – and in Western Europe as well as in the countries of Central Europe.

    From a Visit made in August 2010. Words and Pictures are Copyright. ©Patrick Goff/HotelDesigns

    Radisson Blu, Frankfurt

    Radisson Blu, Frankfurt (Patrick Goff)

    1000 666 Daniel Fountain

    I have just featured two hotels (Cube and Ongava) where the guests’ needs, in terms of why they are at those locations, has driven the form of the hotel. In the case of Cube the operator has intelligently analysed a European market and completely reworked the form of the hotel to meet the function demanded of the building by the resultant guest profile.

    Operator and designer have worked together to provide solutions that result in the hotel running all year round at very high occupancy rates. In effect, the architecture has been driven by the guest profile and the building has been designed from the inside out.

    Award winning architecture, an iconic building, does not necessarily make for a good hotel. At Frankfurt the Radisson Blu is a classic example of where the function is dictated by the building form. The operator, Rezidor, has gained an iconic building with the added advantage of it being a highly visible position at the end of a motorway into the city, where it sits like an architectural full stop to the highway. The building is like a full stop in the sense that its form is circular, a form that then generates myriad problems for the interior designers and the operator.

    As an ex-designer of hotels I like to try to get my head inside the head of the designer and understand what was trying to be achieved. Here the designer definitely lost out in a confused and difficult interior space riven with slabs and columns by what I see as the usual architect’s indifference to operational criteria or internal functioning. The architect created a powerful external statement that gave presence to the hotel without enabling the interior to work. For example the services to the rooms in the arcs of the circular building probably drop straight down as a chord through the various floors, the rooms becoming longer and longer as they near the circumference, then shrinking again and losing height as they get towards the top of the arc.

    Radisson Blu, Frankfurt
    Why are the hotel groups so seduced by architecture that they forget that the guest experience owes little or nothing to this aspect of the building? I was recently asked by Marriott whether I would choose a modern hotel or a historic conversion/refurbishment. I replied I would choose the most comfortable with the best bathroom. What is it about these operators that they cannot see that architectural ‘genius’ does not necessarily equal guest appreciation? After all that has been written and said over the years about the need for hotels to be designed from the inside out, it saddens me to see an operation like Rezidor, led by Kurt Ritter – perhaps the greatest of our contemporary hoteliers, succumbing to the same old tired architectural blandishments. Yes, they have a landmark building, but internally and operationally it is failing.

    Maybe location is imperfect — falling between three stools. Close to but not a part of the business and banking district. Within sight of, but not close to, the exhibition halls. Close enough to the airport to have aircrew staying but not close enough to be an airport hotel. But such imperfections are commonplace and can be overcome by operational excellence. Given a malfunctioning poorly designed interior dominated by a visually intrusive staircase and a wine ‘tower’ that is not a tower, nor close enough to serve the restaurant, achieving operational excellence is made much more difficult to achieve.

    The wine tower is a device Rezidor have used in other Radisson Blu hotels (see Stansted for example) but as a spectacle this one is near useless as it is positioned half way up the staircase and is little more than a glass walled cellar. As such it would have made more sense both visually and operationally to be next to the restaurant, possibly in place of the glass screen that sets the food operation apart from the rest of the ground floor areas. As it is, it makes staff walk half way up the staircase to fetch wine, and is virtually invisible from anywhere except the conference breakout zone on the mezzanine.

    There are three restaurant areas. One with rose lighting, attractively set under seats and tables which leads from an adjoining bistro area that in turn runs off the lobby. Here the team are running a popular business lunch operation which makes me wonder why the third area, set at the front of the hotel, isn’t made similarly successful.

    Radisson Blu, Frankfurt
    My suggestion would be to turn this closed space into a typical Gästehaus bar/bistro operation. The food offering in this part of Frankfurt seems to be re-interpretations of Italian, Turkish or other nationalities. Given many guests are tourists to Germany it would seem something local would be profitable. It might also attract a beer and wurst local audience, making the space popular instead of it being dark – especially given its visible presence on the street side of the hotel. If this were a W it would be seen as the ‘Friday night millionaire’ corner of the hotel, the place to be seen, but original design has failed to attract a local trade and the hotel guests prefer the bar.

    The bar is successful and neatly designed although the delivery route for stock is actually through the bar itself which is obviously less than ideal. With a clear view of the terrace, staff are able to effectively service the tables and the area is quite stylish. In between the bar and restaurant is an area broken by grey concrete columns and the lift shafts. Here is the lobby seating and reception desks, but the space is dominated by a long staircase that cuts intrusively across the double height windows. The area attempts openness, seeks grandeur, but feels claustrophobic. The interior designer has created a clever seating ‘box’ the sides of which lift to reveal power points and shelf space for laptops. On top of the sides are blue LED light fittings linked to the ceiling area by fibre cables which create a beam of blue light from each fitting.

    Unfortunately the failure rate appears high, and the result is like a pretty girl’s grin when teeth are missing or blackened: disappointing and slightly shocking. It is also commented on negatively by guests. I know that Rezidor cut back on spending in the recession, but with the exterior signage missing lamps rendering it unreadable, this seems a somewhat dubious area of saving to make!

    The bathrooms in the hotel are amongst the best I have seen in terms of interior design, including things such as retractable washing lines, and should be the standard for any four star hotel to mimic. The bathrooms also use digitally printed wallpaper to great visual effect and the use of colour in the different bedroom types is also striking and strong. Again, the structure imposes itself, giving bedroom floor to ceiling windows and creating odd sizes in the curves of the ends of the circular building.

    Radisson Blu, Frankfurt
    Here are placed the business rooms and suites so the varying size can be used to great effect in changing the kinds of rooms created. Whilst the designer shows considerable expertise in the handling of the standard room this assured flair isn’t as much in evidence in the suites where the length creates a number of problems. The windows are all on the ends of these rooms so the lighting becomes important, especially during daylight hours. Stopping one end of the room being shrouded in gloom by comparison with the window end requires an assured handling of the lighting balance.

    The standard bedrooms reflect the brand standards, now also being rolled out in the US by the Carlson owners of the Radisson brand, They too have adopted the Radisson Blu naming, the Blu of course a reference to the original European brand owners SAS airlines whose logo was also a blue square. Indeed the previous design director for Rezidor, Gordon McKinnon, is now working in a similar role in Carlson US. For the first time we potentially have a mass market brand with standard room type across all continents.

    Bedroom schemes range from funky to somewhat masculine conservative in the business rooms.All are well laid out and thought through. Sockets are in the right places and lighting the lighting is good. At four star Rezidor get it right and this is probably as good as it gets – although as standards continue to rise it will be interesting to see where the upgrade comes – a separate shower perhaps as well as bath?

    All the more surprising then that the suites don’t carry the same conviction. Whilst bedrooms match the quality of the standard rooms and bathrooms too are well designed the lounge area seem a little at a loss as to how they should be to set out. Whilst everything is there they lack seem to me to lack some physical and emotional comfort, with large spaces with large pieces of furniture, but very masculine and corporate in feel.Even top businessmen need an environment in which they can relax.

    Radisson Blu, Frankfurt

    At the top of the circular building is the spa and pool area, taking advantage of the curve to place a glass roof over the pool and giving the area some of the best views of Frankfurt. There is a gym and some spacious well planned and detailed massage rooms. The wellness area is guarded by access via key card only, and I am continually surprised that this simple implementation of electronic key control isn’t a standard in all hotels to give added security to guests.The lift doesn’t move without key input providing some measure of security to all floors, and it also is needed to open doors in the spa.

    This is a high visibility building with its garden pool and terrace. The restaurants and spa ought to have been buzzing. During my visit in August 2010 Europe was emerging from recession and Germany had shown growth of 2% in one quarter. Although quite busy the hotel was by no means full. I know August is a holiday month and Germany is putting towels on loungers by pools the world over, but it does not seem to be attracting any local business. For reasons one has to look to the location and the design.

    Imposing from the outside the closure of one cafe shows that the interior is not targeted profitably on a suitable guest profile. Watching Korean, Nigerian, English and French guests struggling to master an international menu in a restaurant that was totally international in styling, I couldn’t help wondering if making it a little more German wouldn’t help with both the simplification of the menu and attracting the local community.

    But then I’m just a designer who dislikes grey concrete columns scattered carelessly through an interior. Criticising the food is just a reflection of the irritation I felt at the architecture.

    Words and Pictures ©Patrick Goff. Made after a visit in August 2010

    Ongava Lodge, Namibia

    Ongava Lodge, Namibia (Patrick Goff)

    1000 666 Daniel Fountain

    The boy was nervous, shining his torch carefully into the shadows, walking slowly so we were treading on his heels. The man with the rifle was alert, holding his weapon across his body, finger on the trigger guard. Was this a piece of hotel theatre staged for effect? We were walking back to our room after dinner, and were not allowed to leave the restaurant until our escort was in place.

    Ongava Lodge is constructed on a small hill in the 323km² (125mile²) Ongava Game Reserve, a private reserve just outside the main gate of the Etosha National Park in Namibia. The National Park’s original 100,000 km² (38,500mile²) made it the largest game reserve in the world when created. The aim was to stem the rapid depletion of wildlife in the area, and protect the land through which the seasonal migrations passed. Then, just as a nature conservation unit and several tourist camps were set up, the reserves were redefined and Etosha shrank to its present size covering an area of more than 22 750km² (8,750mile²).

    The addition of the private parks, many of which abutt each other and Etosha, has extended the range of protected territory as well as that of the predators. A ribbon of such reserves now stretches down through Damaraland and the Skeleton Coast to the Sossusvlei, the Namibian Sand Sea. The Lodges are all connected by dirt tracks and the areas own bush airline Sefofane.

    Ongava Lodge, Namibia
    So is the escort a piece of theatre by the Lodge to see guest safely back to their rooms? The second night, after a long working day, I decided to go back to our room early, long before dusk, and sit quietly on the balcony with a bottle of chilled white wine and watch the vault of heaven light up with the myriad upside down constellations of the African sky.

    As we settled into our wicker chairs, wrapping ourselves in the provided blankets against the chill night air, a black backed jackal walked past a hundred or so metres away – followed by two lionesses and a lion, all on their way to the Lodge water hole. ‘Red in tooth and claw’, such wildlife is why tourism is growing – and why operators take every precaution to ensure the safety of their guests. As our guide said “we haven’t had anyone eaten this year…yet.”

    The embrace of nature is a part of the philosophy of Wilderness Group who use the out of season times to provide experience of the game parks to children from African cities through their Wilderness Trust. They have lit enthusiasms, then paid for development and education both for individuals and whole communities. Now many have done this but uniquely Wilderness funds their activities, on over 60 sites across Africa, with luxury hospitality developments (see Little Kulala and Damaraland for other examples).

    Ongava Lodge, Namibia
    The luxury wraps around the guests at Ongava sometimes striking a slightly discordant note, such as when one can watch rhinoceros or giraffe at the waterhole whilst sipping an iced gin-and-tonic at the bar. The comfort is five star with meals served on the restaurant terrace under the stars or under the thatch, with clear views down to the plain below. Dusk and dawn, evening and breakfast time provide the best game watching as the beasts move to water then, but all the rooms are aligned to watch the waterhole or game paths.

    As evening draws on the terrace has a fire pit to sit around and there is always the escort waiting to see guests safely back to one of the 14 rooms. Game paths also run between the rooms, and it can be a little startling to find a buck some ten feet from your balcony in the morning — to the buck too, although they don’t always take fright (too stupid?). Balconies are large and have an outside shower as well as the interior shower, allowing sun worshippers a quick cooling drench when the heat becomes too much to bear.

    The individual lodges vary in size, but all have their own air conditioners, although in late July it was still cool enough under the thatch that their use was not necessary. Rooms have ample space for clothing and a daily washing service is included as the guest luggage allowance on the Cessnas is necessarily very limited. Laundry taken away one day is returned the next, neatly ironed.

    Ongava Lodge, Namibia
    The large shower room is organised so that the twin wash hand basins have a window in front of them through which it is possible to watch the waterhole whilst washing. Materials throughout are carefully chosen to reflect the environment but the whole is sophisticated with electric shaving points and ample power points for charging cameras etc..

    Walls and floors look like a concrete version of Venetian plasterwork,and this is practical, being cool in the heat and easy to maintain in the sandy environment. The rooms open up into the thatch providing a large air circulation area to aid cooling. Windows have timber bars for security, which also help provide shade from the heat of the sun. Large French windows open onto the balcony and the absence of TVs and radios allows the wilderness to speak.

    There is a separate higher-level lodge called Little Ongava. There, three large apartments each with small infinity pools, lounges etc make up the ‘suites’ of the Lodge. The Lodge has its own pool with sun loungers, sometimes shared with the dassies, and offers the main dining experience but the suites have their own self-contained lounges. Approached by high-level timber walkways this exclusive area was apparently adopted briefly as a sleeping platform by some lions shortly after opening, slightly surprising guests when they opened their front door!

    The suites, like the rooms in the main hotel take their design cues from the African vernacular we have seen in other hotels reviewed updating them with luxury described by one commentator as “mixing Robinson Crusoe with the Savoy”. The resulting mix is however far more sophisticated then Crusoe may have managed and energy conservation, water recycling and safeguarding the guest’s physical well being all are part of the designers approach.

    Ongava Lodge, Namibia
    Game Lodges are a specialised sector of the hotel market. They are set in remote locations where the guest is prepared to endure journeys of enormous distances. Guests live in comparative isolation away from the comfort and security of 21st century city living in order to experience the adrenalin rush of being close to big game.

    Despite their isolation and having to rely on their own abilities to supply water and power, these Lodges have lessons for all hotels. Some are obvious such as energy conservation and water recycling. Others are less obvious such as using the local vernacular within guest accommodation to reinforce a sense of place or enhance the theatre of experience. Even the game trails and experiences of seeing wildlife have lessons for hoteliers elsewhere as I showed (slightly tongue in cheek admittedly) when I created a wildlife safari suggestion in my Review of the Premier Inn Woking. David Seymour of Seymours Hotels has done it successfully in Jersey with his very successful guided walks along the tidal beaches on the island.

    In all the lodges I have Reviewed there has been a successful blend of comfort with closeness to the environment. Standards of comfort and facilities rival those of any London four stars and are competitive with many of the city’s five stars. As the Cube in Austria has taken a hard look at its market and changed the design parameters to meet the identified guest need, so Wilderness have taken a hard look at the cost benefits of their design and guest needs to create something special.

    If travelling and staying in hotels is about creating memories, then Ongava must top the league.

    Words and Pictures ©Patrick Goff
    Date of Visit August 2009

    Royal Hotel, Hull

    Royal Hotel, Hull (Patrick Goff)

    1000 666 Daniel Fountain

    I have a fascination with railway hotels. In Britain, they were part of the revolution in travel and hotel use in the mid-nineteenth century. Before the railways, mass travel was inconceivable and hotels were coaching inns, primarily places where horses for the carriages or stagecoaches could be changed. Such travel was slow and expensive but the railways brought mass travel into reality.

    In the industrial towns and cities of the north, working pattern changes and the industrial workers in the mills became part of a well paid elite, at least initially, as wages were set at levels to tempt self employed artisans and field workers from the countryside into the towns. Factories began to have shutdowns to allow the whole workforce to take a holiday; the famous Wakes Weeks in Lancashire an example, where one writer recorded that in Bolton Wakes Week the only thing that moved in Bolton were the ‘hands on the town hall clock’.

    More than just holidays however, the railways transformed the transportation of goods and people. Ports like Hull became major players in a world in which by the late nineteenth century, had exports from Britain totalling more than exports from all the other industrial countries of the world put together. Writing at a time when the UK has just announced a record negative trade balance this casts a sad light on the performance of British management, political and industrial, since then.

    Royal Hotel, Hull
    The demand from business as well as other travellers was clear to the entrepreneurs who built railways the world over which started a hotel building boom that was to last many years. The Royal in Hull is a part of a magnificent railway development, a terminal that has survived, in this the most blitzed city in the UK outside London, with many pre-war buildings destroyed or damaged. It stands comparison with later buildings we have featured (Andaz in London, Mohonk in upstate New York and the Queens in Leeds) as a testament to the imagination and willingness to invest of our Victorian forebears.

    Indeed Victoria and Albert with their children stayed in this hotel in a visit to Hull in 1854 (the hotel dating from 1851). From the date of HM’s visit the Station Hotel became the Royal Station Hotel, now just the Royal Hotel.

    The hotel is the subject of a continuing refurbishment programme from a new operator. Such hotels are a challenge for both operator and designers. Budgets inevitably are tight and much existing has to be refurbished whilst the whole establishment is lifted to remain competitive. For the operator it may mean retraining staff, or injecting a new esprit de corps. For the designer the key is spending the money in a targeted way to gain maximum ‘bang per buck’.

    Royal Hotel, Hull
    The refurbishment strikes its first confident note with a positive and stylish reworking of the reception and bar lobby. This room, which reaches right through the hotel, has been given a dramatic lighting centrepiece, a large assemblage of lights creating a focus in the centre of the room. As well as being dramatic, the fitting also reduces the vault feel by lowering the centre ceiling. It also stops the eye following the room through to the exit onto the platform through the opposite entrance on the station side of the hotel.

    The addition of strong arcs of light around the bar area also draws the eye, again helping to stop what might otherwise have been a passageway effect. Further interruption is gained from the large central seating area. Strong pattern on wall and carpet are counterbalanced by simple paint treatment, but the visual key is the light fittings and the dramatic areas of light they create.

    The most disappointing area is the section in front of the reception desk. Here, a small piece of the original mosaic floor is preserved but the floor generally is simple functional tiling, out of place with the mahogany and rich pattern and colour elsewhere.

    Royal Hotel, Hull

    Whilst the reception desk is generously sized, its back fittings and the lift cars have been left alone and fail to match the quality of the newly refurbished area. It is as if a line was drawn at the columns inside the front doors, with instructions to the designers that nothing needed to be done beyond that point, as the immediate front area around the entrance doors seems to hark back to another era. Given the way in which smokers colonise areas outside the doors, this is perhaps a wise decision.

    The whole debate about smoking in hotels, won in principal, is still a battle not over. Here, as in other hotels visited, smokers express the desire for non-smoking rooms, as they prefer the clean atmosphere, which of course they are then unable to resist polluting. In this hotel there also seems to be a mix of smoking and non-smoking rooms on same bedroom floors which just doesn’t work, as smokers leaning out of windows doesn’t remove the smell of smoke they trail around on their clothes and other belongings. Entering a hotel through a posse of smokers is a very unpleasant experience too. To be in a non-smoking room next to smoking rooms reminds me of when a Parisian restaurant seated me between two tables of smokers. When I asked for the non-smoking area, the waiter said I was sitting at it.

    On this occasion in talking to the smokers, several said their preference would be for the whole hotel to be non-smoking. Certainly, it seems that when a hotel is newly refurbished it is an opportunity to revisit standards throughout and the time to impose a full smoking ban. The ground floor has a substantial function room area, including a private dining room (adjacent to the main dining room) which appears to be used primarily for storage. As the restaurant itself seems under pressure when feeding a coach party, maybe this should be brought into play to relieve it.

    The function room is a well-appointed space in a side wing extension to the original buildings. These extensions have been added symmetrically, maintaining the overall grace of the original exterior, enhanced by the operator with planting at first floor. The creative confidence of the ground floor with the sharp lighting and sense of pattern is not repeated on the bedroom floors. Whilst the bedrooms themselves are competently handled, the corridors lack panache. This may be a result of a decision to focus the budget on the areas that are most guest facing, a sensible decision if the budget is tight.

    Royal Hotel, Hull
    In the bedrooms, the reuse of existing furniture has been intelligent and the addition of a strong colour on one wall goes some way to recreating some of the drama achieved in the public areas.

    Bedroom size varies widely and the dramatic lighting that is the strength of the public areas is missing, noticeably so in the larger rooms. The bedroom lighting is adequate but task lights are over the mirror at the desk and bedhead lights echo those of the 1980’s, despite the reading light additions. Bathrooms have been refurbished well, but again, reusing the existing layouts has not enabled the best results to be achieved, all of which is disappointing after the public areas on the ground floor.

    Leaving aside service this is a hotel that is capable, with a little push, of lifting itself up into a four star bracket. It may be that the market in Hull does not support that. Although the station has been beautifully restored there is a lack of civic pride evident in the overflowing litterbins at its entrance (it’s all about attention to detail isn’t it?). The hotel building is representative of the many surviving fine buildings in Hull which is still a busy town with major manufacturing and importing businesses. There is plenty of potential here to develop an already strong tourist industry. The town is where William Wilberforce was born and lived, home to aviation pioneer Amy Johnson, and although it now admittedly has John Prescott to cope with, the Ferens Art Gallery is a gem, and the aquarium called the Deep is a brilliant addition to the busy dock area.

    The refurbishment of the Royal and the railway station hints at what could be. Parts of the refurbishment justify the label ’boutique’ for an hotel that sees itself still as a three star. A little push operationally could take this to new levels where a rethink of the bedrooms could achieve a standard that would stand alongside the Queens in Leeds and London’s Andaz in the pantheon of well-restored railway hotels in the UK.

    Written after a visit in June 2010. Words and images ©Patrick Goff.

    Restaurant — Jaymar Interiors
    Lobby/Reception Design — Hunter Patel Creative Group
    Bedrooms — Ramparts Interior Contracts

    Cube, Tyrol Austria

    Cube, Tyrol Austria (Patrick Goff)

    1000 750 Daniel Fountain

    Cube’s name is expressive. The building is a glass cube, unashamedly modernist amongst the traditional Tyrolean valley chalet style architecture. The ‘shock of the new’ is added to by the building being floodlit after dark, and the floodlighting changing colour every couple of minutes.

    The floodlighting is computer controlled and can be used for sponsor messages for events, corporate logos etc.That this is acceptable in a remote country community may seem, to English eyes at least, totally unexpected. To a rural community that relies to a large extent on year round tourism then the development is a welcome sign of jobs and prosperity.

    The Cube fosters that all year round tourism, driven through the winter months by the snow sports and the rest of the year by the enormous fan base for mountain biking. The hotel has clearly been defined to meet the needs of these sporting communities, with unique provision for their needs. It also offers hang-gliding, walking, child-centred trail experiences using large wheeled scooters and trikes all as a ‘base to stay’ in the mountains.

    The third of the Cube hotels to be developed, the Biberwier-Lermoos site meets the location mantra of Mr Hilton perfectly.It is located in a beautifully scenic valley, located at the centre of 100 different cycle tours covering 4,330 kilometres of the Tyrol, and located within 200 metres of the ski-lift system. Location, location, location.

    Cube, Tyrol Austria

    In the summer the ski-lift will even take cyclists to the top of the mountains for the intrepid to use their mountain bikes on the ski trails, downhill only of course.There is also a concrete summer bobsleigh (run on rollers) run of over 1,300 metres, the longest in the Tyrol and enjoyable for children of all ages, even those over 60!

    The company has looked hard at the requirements of the tourist in this area, and young or old, rambler, cyclist or skier, they have planned the hotel around those needs.

    Inside the difference in design that comes from functionally making provision for bikes and skis etc becomes immediately apparent, as the centre of the Cube is a hollow atrium dominated by ramps. Ramps allow cycles and other sports equipment to be taken to rooms. With mountain bikes costing thousands of pounds for the fanatic, the security of having the bike inside the room is an essential.

    Here each of the rooms have a glass fronted ante-chamber,a secure area known as the ‘showroom’ – after all if your bike did cost thousands why hide it? As they say, if you’ve got it, flaunt it and that is what the showroom allows. It gives security and is equipped with rails for storing bikes, skis, snowboards etc, as well as facilities to dry boots or lycra outfits.

    Cube, Tyrol Austria

    There are bike washing facilities and a bike rescue centre at the hotel with an underground repair shop often manned by specialist cycle companies who sponsor challenge rides.

    In the winter there is an après-ski nightclub too, with log fires then being a focus of the ground floor, and the hotel is right at the bottom of a major set of ski lifts.

    Not only does the bedroom’s ‘showroom’ offer facilities for secure storage of sporting equipment along with specialised drying facilities for shoes, boots, outdoor gear etc., it allows the hotel to guarantee to guests that their gear will be dry in 24 hours. All taking account of the current needs of MAMILs who take to the mountains – MAMILs being Middle Aged Men In Lycra….

    The rooms themselves cater for two in the usual German system of two single beds side by side, either separable as singles or zip linked to make a king sized double, always with the separate single duvets. Some rooms come with a double bunk system allowing three or four to share, or catering for families.

    Bedroom facilities match most three and four star hotels, with storage boxes, lockable areas, flat-screen TV’s and all the usual offerings of an hotel but in a unique interpretation that allows for real social interaction between enthusiasts.

    Cube, Tyrol Austria

    Food is done with extended service hours in a cafeteria style operation, offering plenty of variety of salads, fruit as well as more traditional meals. Room price includes food, use of the spa and gym and are set at Travelodge levels — extraordinary given the 24 hour bar and snack service offered. There is a small a la carte dining area which has to be booked in advance for a more sophisticated meal offering.

    The two bars are popular and well patronised and staff move easily between positions, the whole hotel being run by a staff of 25 – 30 people.
    Rooms are unfussy and straightforward. Flooring is either rubber tiles in the ‘showroom’ or using floor carpet tiles in the bedroom. The toilet is a separate facility to the rest of the shower-room, with the whb in between the two. Whilst the whole is simple this does not mean it is not stylish.

    Lighting is good, with good reading lights throwing a generous pool of light, and a line of lockable units double as desks and secure storage, each being equipped with power points. The bedside table doubles as a stool, and the copious provision of sockets is great for all those chargers, GPS navigation systems, smart phones, M3 music systems and all the other electronic paraphernalia the under thirties are unable to move without.

    Cube, Tyrol Austria

    Wardrobes could have been sourced from IKEA, and there is no chair in the room. Instead the wide corridors have rows of seating encouraging a communal sharing of experience. When full the atrium echoed with the cries of the cyclists as they exchanged experiences across the space. The showroom with its second door ensured good sound insulation from this ‘street’ activity for the bedroom area.

    With the emphasis on sport the atmosphere is redolent of tyres and oil in the summer, and I would imagine full of the equivalent ski scents (embrocation and liniment?) in the winter. Whilst the target audience is the fitness enthusiast, there are plenty of 50 plus guests and families in evidence, and many walkers obviously find the hotel attractive — on my visit in the summer it boasted near 100% occupancy.

    That cycling is a popular sport driving occupancy can be seen by the presence of cycle companies in the forecourt, Shimano and Fox both having marquees and staff in attendance. The cycling clubs and their sponsors also enjoy the use of meeting rooms on the top floor, and there is massage and spa facilities available, although for some strange reason cyclists seem to prefer to relax by working out in the gym!

    I understand that for both the sauna/solarium and massage services are much in demand after a day on the piste (or bike). There is also a games room with electronic and table games as well as a climbing wall, so off mountain activities are also well catered for.

    Cube, Tyrol Austria

    What is noticeably absent is any room provision for those with disabilities, although there is a disabled toilet provision on the ground floor. In most bedrooms the shower is a wet area which has no step and could be just about wide enough for those with disabilities. Given the success of sporting endeavours in sports allied to the Paralympics, it seems surprising not more effort was made. Of course the cycle ramps provide obvious ease of access for wheels of all variety.

    There are suites and family rooms and the Hotel offers itself for business functions with an obvious target market in those companies supplying the growing leisure market. Like the brave planning permission granted for this bold building, it seems that the nature of the audience and location have given a pragmatic edge to the operation which has transmogrified into a new interpretation of a leisure hotel.

    The lesson in thinking through the guest profile and requirements prior to design and construction is writ large in the end result. It is one of the boldest, most successful hotel design solutions I have seen yet.

    Written by Patrick Goff after a visit in August 2010
    All images are Copyright© Patrick Goff

    Hotel Apollo, Bratislava

    Hotel Apollo, Bratislava (Patrick Goff)

    800 532 Daniel Fountain

    Noel Coward’s ‘Brief Encounter’ was set on a railway platform in which a couple waiting for different trains fall for one another. Returning to Bratislava after a six year absence rekindles affections in another brief encounter. We left Kitzbühel to drive the 300 miles to Bratislava on a morning with glorious sunshine, in sharp contrast to the Austrian monsoon we had been enjoying. The first half of the journey was through the valleys along minor roads, before switching to motorways for some fast cruising; all relatively trouble free until we arrived in Bratislava.

    I last was here some 6 years ago to review Rezidor’s Carlton in the centre of the old town, and again drove here. This time we chose an hotel in the suburbs not to Review, but just as a night stop on our way to the High Tatra mountains on the border between Slovakia and Poland. The changes apparent in Bratislava on arriving in the city, and on the road out eastwards, are stunning.

    First of all there is a new motorway, not on my three year old satnav. Not only that but a new set of inner roads lined with car dealerships, stores etc. showing the increased affluence now evident in this, one of the newest European capitals. The area the hotel is in is primarily residential, with street cafes and bars speaking of the adoption of a relaxed European lifestyle that on my previous visit I thought would take 15 years to take root here after years of totalitarian rule. This small country has transformed itself in six.Hotel Apollo, Bratislava

    Conversations with the staff here and staff in the Kempinski High Tatras confirmed not only that the impression gained driving through the country was accurate but that they were proud of it and pleased it was noticed. Not difficult to miss the new homes being built throughout the drive, the new roads, new businesses that are springing up everywhere and the number of luxury cars appearing on the roads. This is a country that sees there is only one way – up, and they are taking it. Apollo is itself a symbol of this change. Built originally in 1968 under a previous political regime the hotel has, like the country itself, been transformed and rebuilt. Star of the hotel was the restaurant, and this has been modernised, with some humour. The hunter is represented by a fox on its hind legs clutching a rifle, but the game sold is beautifully cooked and presented, and I am beginning to regard the tender wild boar they serve here as an East European specialty.

    Hotel Apollo, Bratislava
    Reception still has echoes of the past, or perhaps indicators of cultural differences but has been smartly refurbished, and the staff are friendly and responsive. Parking is in the private square outside where cars again speak of affluence, and the neighbouring buildings are being developed to relieve Bratislava’s housing shortage, or occupied by banks, opticians and dentists. Bedroom corridors and lifts have been refurbished, posters for Sean Scully and fashion plates from the ballet dominating. Doors have proximity locks and the card needs to be used in the lift ensuring guest security. There is free wifi reliably available at a desk that is well designed to accommodate a laptop etc.. Lighting is good and the bathrooms, whilst small are no different to the average Holiday Inn, providing a good power shower, and plenty of hot water.

    Whilst European investment has undoubtedly spurred the redevelopment, especially of infrastructure such as railways and motorways, the Slovakians, with a new female Prime Minister have seized the opportunities capitalism has presented. Slovakia now produces more cars per head than any other country in Europe. Large Porsches, for example, are manufactured here and sent to Germany to have the badges added that qualify them as made in Germany. BMW’s corporate HQ is a dominant feature of the Bratislava skyline, and the refurbishment of this hotel is part of a boom in the hospitality industry that is beginning to happen in this attractive country.

    Apollo may not win awards for design, but is professionally done to a high standard. Workmanship and detailing show designer and contractors know their business. A burgeoning ski run and mountain bike trail system as well as the urban attractions of Bratislava, growing business traffic , the mainstay of the Apollo, all are driving the tourist economy forward. It is great to see evidence that the return of democracy is generating a rise in living standards for Slovakians.

    My brief encounter may turn into a long time love affair with this beautiful country…

    ©Words & Pictures Patrick Goff. Visited in July 2010

    Kimpton's Burnham, Chicago

    Kimpton’s Hotel Burnham, Chicago (Patrick Goff)

    1000 666 Daniel Fountain

    We tend to think of the USA as a new country filled with new buildings. However the preservation of old buildings is as much an issue on their side of the Pond as it is on the European side. Chicago recently scandalised many in the American architectural profession by pulling down a series of Gropius buildings in Chicago, a city he settled in when finally forced to flee from Nazi tyranny in Dessau.

    Despite the reputation of the Bauhaus, this was not the leading movement for which Chicago was known then or now. Whilst the name of Frank Lloyd Wright resonates, some of the names of architectural heroes in the city will be a little less familiar to Europeans. Despite the furore over the Gropius buildings the City of Chicago has shown remarkable determination to conserve its historic buildings and this determination led to Kimpton taking on the reputedly first steel framed glass walled skyscraper built for conversion into a boutique hotel.

    Kimpton's Burnham, Chicago
    The Reliance Building, to give it its formal appellation, was started in 1890 by the architectural practice Burnham and Root. Daniel Burnham played a large part in the replanning of Chicago, a city that became famous for innovative architecture after the disastrous fire of 1871 that destroyed four square miles of the city. The fire (reputedly started when Mrs O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern) burned through a city largely made of wood, only stopping when it reached the shores of the Lake Michigan. The basement and ground floor of the Reliance Building were constructed in 1890 while the upper three stories of the building previously on the site remained suspended above on jackscrews. The addition of the remaining floors in 1894–1895 completed the building.

    The building was significant because of the area of glass in the walls, made possible by the use of a steel cage construction. The original owner made lifts (elevators), given pride of place in the entrance, and it was also the first office building to boast a telephone in every office. Its glass and terracotta exterior and lightness because of the steel frame set the tone for the beginning of the skyscraper revolution. Bought and preserved by the city in 1993 the building was developed as a hotel in 1999 at a cost of $27.5 million, with Kimpton as its operator.

    As a conservation project it is marked both by the work done by the city to preserve the structure and external features but also the work undertaken to replicate and restore the original interiors. Much had been destroyed but authentic elements remained on the upper floors. Terrazzo floors and marble walls and ceilings were cleaned and honed. Plaster, mahogany and glass were all restored whist the cast iron work of the lift shafts was replicated and restored to modern standards.

    Kimpton's Burnham, Chicago
    Externally the delicacy and grace of its exterior is equally as delightful today as it was stunning on its original completion. It had much the same impact on Chicagoans as the construction of Arne Jacobsen’s Royal, had on the citizens of Copenhagen in the 1950’s, when it was Scandinavia’s first skyscraper. The Burnham’s signature ‘Chicago’ windows fill the interior with natural light and give spectacular views down State and Washington streets. Not far from the contemporary verson, theWit and inside the Loop, the hotel is very popular and brings the Kimpton style to the city.

    The hotel has a small footprint which limits the size of its popular restaurant and guests have to book for their tables to be available, especially on Sunday when it fills with local residents. With its free drinks hour for guests the public areas are busy, although clever design has fitted in a bar, an effective reception area and guest lounge as well as the restaurant. The space never feels cramped, helped by the huge picture windows to the street.

    Stylish use of colour and good accent lighting lighten the spaces which feel almost Parisian in their bustle. Where theWit up the street also has a very successful bar restaurant combination, its feel is very American whilst the Kimpton succeeds in feeling closer to Continental European café culture, more cosmopolitan with its mix of dark wood, white table cloths and yellow lighting. Many floors have the original door and corridor features of the original office fit-out, carefully re-used, but space has been found for a small gym and a meeting room.

    Kimpton's Burnham, Chicago
    Rooms are stylish and comfortable as one would expect from Kimpton (see also Monaco). With 122 rooms including 19 suites this is not a small hotel by European standards, although the days when hoteliers would pretend they had 99 rooms rather than over a hundred so guest felt more at home, are long gone.

    Bedrooms follow the normal layout, with the bathroom providing an acoustic barrier to the corridor areas. Carpet has replaced terrazzo on the floor although patterns are in keeping with the period of the property. Bedrooms all benefit from the large windows, perfect for watching Boston street life, or the views through to Lake Michigan and the Gehry auditorium defacing the park. Rooms blackout effectively and are provided with sheers for privacy.

    As a European visitor I was somewhat taken aback by the unselfconscious way in which apartment dwellers in the city undressed oblivious (?) to the fact that they were in full view of neighbouring blocks. There is an intimacy in this city which is a little surprising! Either that or Chicagoans are closet exhibitionists set on making voyeurs out of maybe not so innocent tourists…

    IMG_6704
    With the restoration concentrated on floor 7-14, where authentic part remained such as intact plaster ceilings, plate glass, interior store fronts, varnished mahogany doors and trim, one would expect considerable variation over the building. In fact the whole is in harmony and this historically important building has been treated with respect both by its designers, the builders and the operator alike.

    Despite their mistake with the Gropius buildings full credit must go to the policies of the City of Chicago. Without their foresight in purchasing the building and ensuring that the major external features were restored and repaired prior to its purchase for commercial use an important corner of Chicago would have been that much poorer.

    Kimpton's Burnham, Chicago
    We think of ourselves in Europe as being sensitive to the preservation of the past. Chicago remains the inspiration it was to Vladimir Mayakovsky, Tatlin and other artists and poets of the Russian revolution who may well have had in mind the Reliance Building when they wrote of Chicago as a ‘shining city’. This is indeed a shining example of conservation as well as being a resounding advert for Kimpton as operator.

    In this exciting cityscape it stands proud as forebear of all glass walled skyscrapers. It also stands as a quality building with a long life ahead of it.

    Words and Images are © Patrick Goff

    Twelve Apostles, Cape Town (Patrick Goff)

    1000 666 Daniel Fountain

    South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, which means its seasons are the reverse of those in the Northern Hemisphere – as upside down as the constellations at night. Thus June, July and August are winter months – and of course the time when many visitors from the Northern Hemisphere arrive. It can be very cold in the Cape – indeed the 2010 World Cup has been described as one of the coldest ever, with snow fall on Table Mountain.

    For 12 Apostles the variability of the Cape weather and location on the Atlantic (colder) side of the Cape Peninsula ensures that they are frequently inside a cloud mix of salt spray off the sea and mist off the mountains behind the hotel. The hotel is in a narrow band of fynbos (aromatic herbal scrub) between the 12 Apostle mountain range, after which the hotel is named, and the main coast road around the Cape. Whilst it photographs beautifully from around the bay the hotel is isolated by the main road from the shore line which at this point is high surf and large boulders – indeed the hotel carries relics on its terrace from shipwrecks on the point below the hotel.

    The hotel is part of Red Carnation group who also operate the wonderful Bushmans Kloof, and whilst the service and staff are excellent (and probably the reason for those awards) the location here is not a patch on Bushmans, despite being in a reserve. Here Cape wildlife may be caught on hotel CCTV cameras at night but there are no conducted forays into the finebos, the emphasis being on the sybaritic, the quality of the bars and restaurant and an award winning Spa. During the day the proximity of the road means wildlife is rarely seen, so this is an urban hotel in a park setting.

    Twelve Apostles, Cape Town

    During my visit the hotel was undergoing a refurbishment. I had resisted the temptation of visiting the hotel in previous trips to Cape Town so perhaps I have only myself to blame for such a poor sense of timing which meant they had a temporary kitchen, the bistro was out of action and the builders, whilst well managed and discreet, were still evident. So, rain and builders, not a good combination for any hotel wishing to show off its fine qualities. For 12A, as it is known locally, this was not a problem as staff obviously went out of their way to make sure all guests were as unaware as possible of the changes going on. Only because I am a nosy designer was I able to poke my way into the refurbishment and get a sight of the new rooms as they developed.

    The weather? Well this is Cape Town, and there are only supposed to be 60 days a year here when there is no mist or cloud because of the two oceans, Atlantic and Indian, that meet just a few miles away.

    So what was the refurbishment like? If the old schemes were voluptuous ‘old English’ style of somewhat decadent luxury,belonging to another age the new are a very contemporary reinterpretation of the seaside hotel, bringing a life and vitality into the buildings the old scheme did not quite achieve.
    The layout of the hotel helps with refurbishment as it is a collection of connected but independent blocks, allowing refurbishment to be phased a block at a time so guests are not involved. The new schemes bring primary colour stripes to the carpets in the public areas, with signage mixing images of the sea with a tactile quality, a kind of flotsam and jetsam feel, to the images and graphics.

    Twelve Apostles, Cape Town

    There is a delightful freshness about the corridor schemes that is carried through in the freshness of the bedrooms, with good use of mirror and a baseline green that pulls in the landscape. The whole has a youthful vitality but still has the luxury finishes to be expected. Sophisticated use of upholstered walls carries through into huge upholstered bedheads. The wall coverings are of fabric so there may be a question mark over their longevity, but they bring a sense of luxury sophistication to the rooms.
    Whilst very different to the same designer’s schemes at Bushmans Kloof, there is a sense of humour at work in both that enlivens the design. The feel that this is a tongue in cheek rework of a seaside hotel, the stripe in the carpet so obviously visually referencing deck chair canvas (consciously or unconsciouly)makes me smile with pleasure.

    Lighting is well handled and whilst most of the guests are leisure, there is a substantial desk for those who need to work, as well a comprehensively equipped business centre for those who need printers, fax machines etc.

    The bar also carries through the sense of fun seen in the corridors, with its focus on Africa rather than seaside. In common with the Restaurant that sits on a floor below, it has ocean views and a terrace for smokers, although smoking is not yet outlawed in internal spaces in South Africa in the way it is now in Europe.

    Twelve Apostles, Cape Town

    There is a successful mix of comfort and design, with the sense of humour engaging though the banana leaf wallpaper that works here very successfully. Images are of Africa with an exceptional collection of original drawings and prints of big cats. The bar is large and comfortable as is the rest of the room, and it is here that the likeness comes closest to Bushmans Kloof, the handwriting of the designer being the same.

    The whole is almost from another era in the way the barman remembers names, the easy informality yet superb service in a room that is clubbish homely and stylish all at the same time. This is the same successful blend of Africa and Europe, or modern and traditional that makes the other hotels operated by the group so successful. The restaurant is stylish and very popular. Design again is modern and comfortable, considerably expanded in warmer months by the use of the large terrace. Despite being full the area worked well and the room had the bustle and smiles, chatter and absorption in the food that characterises most succesful restaurants.

    In the absence of the bistro, food service from a temporary kitchen into the restaurant and the bar areas was terrific,and the food quality excellent, approved of by another SA hotel manager with whom we dined.

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    Many Cape-tonians know 12A well, using its very popular Spa, but it also has a small cinema which is used for previews and small business presentations. In addition there is a marquee style funtion suite.
    Twelve Apostles is one of the pre-eminent Spas in Cape Town, winning many awards. The spa is almost carved out of the living rock under the hotel itself. There is an external pool with ocean views but there are also pools within the spa itself.

    Treatment rooms are neatly designed and there are also treatment rooms in the fynbos outside, mimicking the installations at Busmans Kloof. In the summer these could be opened up to the sound of the surf beyond the road. Excavating the living rock must have been an enormous challenge. There are two entrances to the Spa, one from the hotel and the other from adjacent to the Reception entrance, with its own reception desk and lounge area. The route into the Spa from its own front reception is over an underlit glass bridge, a device that is used elsewhere to introduce more light into the grotto of the interior.

    This leaves a guest coming through from the hotel slightly undecided as to where to go on arrival although staff are usually on hand to greet new arrivals. Carving out the spaces has obviously resulted in some compromises as space is very limited. The spa is stylish and the treatments are expert, but there are areas of constriction. The relaxation zone is small and the male changing facilities are almost a vestigial afterthought.

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    The popularity of spa treatments with men (apparently more men then women use them in many countries now) may well have changed the user profile for many spa operators. Here male changing would struggle with more than two guests at a time. Visiting during refurbishment showed how well the hotel is being updated with a fresh stylish contemporary interior. The corridors are hugely improved, whilst the styling of the bar and restaurant is timeless. The new bedrooms will be welcomed as a change from the somewhat old fashioned, stuffy, schemes that they replace.

    On a future visit of Cape Town I will have a look at their new bistro. The award winning Chef (his underchef is now chef at the Cape Grace in Cape Town)proudly showed me his new kitchens, not quite ready to be brought into service on my visit but no doubt being worked hard by the time you read this.
    With a refurbished Cape Grace, the new One & Only Cape Town, and other new Cape Town hotels under way including a Missoni, competition for the 12A is increasing. Its popularity with local clientele and its views along the coast will give it an edge.

    Its biggest asset though is its operator, Red Carnation. With Bushmans Kloof its country cousin now recognised globally as one of the world’s great hotels,and the reopening of the refurbished Oyster Box in Umhlanga the ability to offer the leisure traveller a number and choice of destinations will continue to help this hotel remain full.

    ©Words and Images Copyright Patrick Goff

    Andel’s, Poland (Patrick Goff)

    1000 666 Daniel Fountain

    It has been a pleasure in the first part of 2010 to have seen a succession of beautifully designed hotels – the Arch, the Wit and now Andel’s hotel in Łódź, Poland. Whilst Chicago’s Wit is a new build, with all the benefits that it brings, the Arch and Andel’s are both reconstructions of 19th Century properties. I use the term reconstruction deliberately because to say refurbishment would in both cases underplay the rôle that the teamwork of owner, designer and architect aligned with exceptional contractors has brought to the project. In all three cases it is evident that strong owners have kept a clear sight of the end product they wanted and have made sure the money is spent on the finishes to achieve the required standard, and the required style statement.

    Some think that the quality of fine hotels, like those of Anouska Hempel that started the whole boutique craze, is down to the decorative elements. Certainly Hempel’s use in Blakes of sharp down lighting on contrasting table cloths with accent flowers was stunning in the early 1980’s, but that detail was not the key element of why Blakes worked so well for so long. The decorative was but one piece of the puzzle – the main strengths were down to careful space planning of the interiors, careful attention to detail and an eye for where spectacle and theatre can be created in the interiors.

    Andels, Lodz in Poland

    Andels, Lodz in Poland

    In an hotel such as Łódź (and the Arch) the interior could have failed but didn’t thanks to clever planning and design. By taking risks, the team has created a stunning re-use of a building that may otherwise have fallen prey to the demolition crew and are reaping many awards for having done so. The philosophy has been about not only creating a successful hotel but also about respect for the past, for the history of the building. Throughout the historic structure, cast iron columns, brick jack arches and other features have been retained and enhanced by pieces of machinery salvaged from the dereliction that was here before.

    Old structures pose particular problems for interior designers,and here it was the modular of the columns, which with bays three metres wide was quite a bit smaller that current trends, never mind the historic bedroom width of 3.66m (12 feet if you are an imperialist).

    Incidentally did you know that the 3.66m/12foot width was the original width of Axminster carpet looms? Bedroom width was set so as not to create any waste on carpet installation and became a standard until the turn of the century.

    The span of the bays is obviously just one of the problems in planning that an old building like this creates. Its length, the width and the lack of daylight at the heart of the building were also major headaches. Like many truly creative teams the designers here produced a dramatic design solution that produced a major part of the drama of the interiors, by simply punching through the floors of the building to create internal light wells. The difficulties of providing fire protection were resolved by automatic flame proofing barriers that drop down around the holes to ensure smoke and flame is not transmitted to the bedroom areas in event of fire. The holes’ edges are lit with colour changing LED lighting and projected images and become the dominant visual element in first(and second and third)impressions.

    The designers have played with the spaces and materials, using organic forms to offset the severity of the original construction, using colour playfully too. On occasion the furniture viewed from floors above through the ‘light wells’ has the appearance of liquorice allsorts, whilst ground floor carpets echo the holes in the ceiling. Curve against straight line angle works to produce visually engaging areas that delight the eye. The amount of space for guests provides a true feeling of luxury.

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    Using the lift core and restaurant areas also help to break up the length of the building. The need for corridor connection between the conference areas and main lobby on the ground floor is used to break up the large restaurant spaces to create smaller, more intimate dining areas.

    The length of the building also allows a second entrance for the conference and meeting room area, with its own reception desk. Security for guestrooms is reinforced by the use of key card operation for the lifts. Guestrooms are contained between the pool and spa on the top floor and the reception, dining and bar areas on the ground floor.

    Despite the problems caused by the nature of the jack arches, the bedroom uses the space well, with added length compensating for decreased width – in fact allowing spaces to work better, giving larger bathrooms that are long enough for a soaking tub and a separate walk-in shower adjacent to the separate toilet. The extra length also allows for the creation of an area away from the bed for the desk, as well as for a large armchair and seating area.

    The bedroom desk is large enough to work on comfortably, suiting the orientation of the hotel which, as a large conference hotel, is targeted mainly on the business market. The separate entrance and own reception desk for the conference area however, keeps the hotel functions separate.

    The design of the restaurant, which is divided into half a dozen areas of varying size supports this separation, allowing for conference delegates to eat separately from small family gatherings or individual guests. In addition, the bar end of the capacious public areas has a separate bistro type zone for those who want to meet and snack.

    Bedroom floors have of course, the drama of the light wells punching through allowing views down to the floors below or up to the skylights above. The circular wall surrounding the openings can also have video imagery projected onto them. Preventing areas opening onto bedroom corridors from forming a fire chimney is difficult. Here the resolution is shutters that come down from the ceiling closing the light wells off from the means of escape. The constantly changing LED lights, set under the rim of the wall, cap around the light wells and create a continuous drama of light and colour, particularly at night.

    Lighting design throughout is very well done. Bedrooms have their own drama with light thrown up into their brick arched ceilings whilst the use of large anglepois style bedhead lights mean that it is possible to read comfortably in bed whilst also moving the light if need be. Good task lighting at the desk and sockets that are in the right place also help make for an efficient work environment if one is needed. Romance is not forgotten however, with the use of historic fabric patterns from the archive of products produced by the mill on cushions and bedhead linking to the past.

    In the generously sized bathrooms, which have separate walk-in showers as well as soaking tubs and separate toilet areas, a touch of romance is also brought in by the use of an under sink light. I first saw this device of a coloured light under the sink beautifully used in the Meridien Vienna where it was eau de nil in colour. Here it is a rich plum panel, preventing the design becoming too clinical.

    Overall the feel of the bedroom is of spaciousness despite their narrow width. With their deeply recessed opening windows flooding them with daylight and skilful lighting at night they are exceptional for Łódź’s first four star hotel and set a standard which many supposed five stars fail to attain.

    “This is, truly, a stunning hotel conversion – Blackburn, Preston why did you pull your mills down?”

    The drama of the design, architectural and interior, continues on the top floor with spa and 1,300 m² fully glass-enclosed ballroom/function rooms. The interior mix of reclaimed and exposed industrial surface along with sophisticated contemporary finishes continues in the spa and treatment room. In an architectural tour de force, the old factory emergency water tank has been refurbished (hardly seems to do the process justice) and turned into a spectacular roof top swimming pool, the end of which projects many feet over the edge of the building line. With windows in the floor as well as all surrounding glass, the pool offers spectacular views over the new shopping centre, housed in other restored buildings from the life of this, one of the largest mills in Poland.

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    The team of client, architect and interior designer along with very capable builders have transformed the building. Adjacent, the palace of the owner (seems hardly appropriate to call it his house) has also been transformed, restored to a Museum of high Victorian mid-European taste (for an example of an hotel in the similar style have a look at Noma).

    With duplex suites, 3,100 m² of conference and function spaces, spectacular pool, spa, restaurants and 278 bedrooms the hotel brings a new dimension to hospitality in central Poland. The stunning architecture and theatrical interiors are already bringing awards from ceremonies in New York and London, as well as in Continental Europe.

    Location is excellent, on the edge of the city centre adjacent to the ‘Manufactura’ shopping centre. This is, truly, a stunning hotel conversion – Blackburn, Preston why did you pull your mills down?

    Design
    Developers:Warimpex
    Architect:the Polish-Austrian team of OP Architekten
    Interior Designers: Jestico + Whiles
    Operator: Vienna International

    Allwords & pictures copyright Patrick Gof

    TheWit, Chicago (Patrick Goff)

    1000 666 Daniel Fountain

    Not a Trump Tower. A small building by Chicago’s standards, only 27 storeys high. Small but almost perfectly formed. Perhaps the ‘lightning streak’ of yellow down the outside is not the most successful feature I have seen on a building and the signage is definitely one sided. Location next to the El might seem odd, but as with the Marriott in London’s Docklands that nestles against the DLR, the train is not evident inside and its proximity is like a transfusion line from Chicago’s main blood stream. The life it promises is made good inside the hotel which is one of the most beautifully designed modern hotels I have seen in the US. I enjoyed Hotel 1000 in Seattle, and the Kimpton’s Alexis across the road but this one is better – its advantage being that it was purpose built. Here the building planning works a dream.

    The location may not be on the so-called ‘Magnificent Mile’ which seems to me to only be magnificent if you are a shopping addict or aficionado of modern architecture. Here are the University campuses, the broadcast studio, the art school, the City Cultural Centre and library. It is a district once falling into dereliction, dominated by Macy’s and whose regeneration kicked off when the city fathers had the foresight to save the Burnham building.

    A twin room at TheWit in Chicago

    A twin room at TheWit in Chicago

    A block away this is now the eponymous Kimpton (and shortly to be subject of one of our Reviews). With a youthful and media audience on its doorstep, theWit has been planned and designed in a way that draws this audience whilst having the design maturity to appeal to the older moneyed market that will provide the true spend and profitability longer term.

    A clever balancing act has been struck between being fashionable and having a timeless quality to the design, a trick usually missed by so-called fashion hotels in my experience. This has been helped considerably by the good interior layout planning where lessons from other hotels have been learned. The bar and restaurant have a street frontage, named State Lake after a famous local café that used to be on the site, giving an historical validity to an eatery here. The speciality restaurant stair climbs from inside the street windows to the bar, pre dinner drinks being possible in a high visibility, high profile area. This is an area UK pub designers used to refer to (tongue in cheek) as a ‘Friday Night millionaire corner’ where someone could splash money around on a Friday night in high visibility as if they had more than they actually did. This is a parable for the cash-strapped years after bankers follies perhaps?

    The restaurant sits on the floor above, approached either from the staircase in the bistro or from the mezzanine floor above reception. In reception a staircase leads to the Mezzanine from beside the concierge desk, allowing security to be maintained both through supervision and also because the integrity of the lift’s room card recognition system is not broken. External guests going to the nightclub bar operation on the top floor can only use the lift from bottom to top – without the key card intermediate stops at bedroom floors are not possible.

    he library-like mezzanine space also provides for the informal business meetings that are such a normal part of lobby life and a queuing area for those wishing to gain access to the rooftop or waiting for seats in the Restaurant, such is the immediate popularity of this stylish hotel. One wall of the space is dominated by a mural of a phoenix, echoing the themes of the light fittings, symbolic of the rebirth of this area of Chicago. With a library feel, the height of the space is still large enough to create a grand sensation, a feel that carries through to the access and conference areas and to the spa.

    Bar, restaurant area at TheWit Chicago

    Bar, restaurant area at TheWit Chicago

    The clever design of the restaurant plays with the space there. A chef’s table, intimate booths and a couple of classical private dining spaces create a busy and buzzing feel, yet allow privacy as well. At the top of the stairs from the bar side is a glazed private dining area and the foot of the same staircase has the lounge feeling pre-dinner drinks area. None of the spaces are overlarge and every part is used, creating a busy feel yet not feeling crammed. The bar itself does that difficult trick so often done well in America of creating a space that works well as a bar without creating an intimidating feel to the restaurant. Therefore, the restaurant remains a very comfortable and intimate area.

    “library like Mezzanine space also provides for the informal business meetings that are such a normal part of lobby life”

    The main restaurant offers flexible dining spaces yet it too manages to create intimate dining spaces. The show kitchen adjacent to the chef’s table enhances the intimacy of the space. Maitre’d desk faces the door from the mezzanine. With the addition of the barbeque and ‘grazing’ bar on the rooftop there is a multiplicity of eating areas done with style and offering a variety of different approaches to food – nor, unlike most US establishments, are portions intimidating. This is an hotel that has learned many of the lessons of the last 15 years in its execution, not just from interior design but other areas of the hospitality operation too.

    The design surprises continue through into the bedroom areas. Each lift lobby has a small ‘library’ continuing the theme from the Mezzanine, with busts of famous thinkers, books and so forth arranged around a small bookshelf and display case.

    However that is not the surprise, rather it is the sound of birdsong that fills the corridors -totally unexpected in urban Chicago. Not enough just to have birdsong either, for as dusk draws in so the sound changes to the sound of crickets and the hoot of owls. Indeed I noticed the far off ringing of church bells too, delightfully bucolic.

    Standard bedrooms offer the choice of either a tub or a walk-in shower room type and all have floods of daylight from enormous picture windows filled with the skyline of Chicago. Colours are generally muted with accents being provided by touches of sharp secondary colours – turquoise or orange and lightened with strong patterns in wallpaper and carpets. Chromatically well balanced the result is visually as well as physically comfortable. The desks are generously sized enabling an easy working situation to be set up, enhanced by the free Wi-Fi.

    TheWit, Chicago

    Sockets are well placed and generous lighting ensures that there is never a gloomy corner to struggle with.

    Desks are generously sized, enabling an easy working situation to be set up, enhanced by the free Wi-Fi.

    Bathrooms are well designed with good contrasts in the materials used and excellent lighting levels. Unfortunately the wash hand basins are stupidly shallow and wide, making a wet shave laborious and a good wash difficult without using the shower.

    In the suites large baths and walk-in showers complement the large vanity units. Suites also boast kitchens and dining areas, complete with microwaves, hobs and fridges, as well as wardrobes for outdoor gear separate from the wardrobe for indoor clothes. Useful coat hooks are provided, a thoughtful touch in many countries often missed in UK hotels, but which allows damp outdoor garments to be hung away from shirts dresses and so on.

    Whilst theWit has echoes from many hotels nothing it does is incredibly innovative. But it is encouraging to me as a designer to see that the owner and designers have pulled together all the lessons of the last ten years advances in hotel design. Firstly in planning and layout, secondly in terms of food/hospitality operation and finally in terms of spa operation and business rooms.

    Restaurant on the front to give a profile, a ‘Friday Night millionaires corner’ for the poseur to see and more importantly be seen, a screening room for the local arts and media market, plenty of facilities for local businessmen, good location, good staff and good bedrooms. On top of this nice operational and design touches such as birdsong in the corridors to give an individual personality to the hotel enabling guests to feel a loyalty and identify with the hotel.

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    Too often hotel chains have innovative layouts and food operations such as Marriott’s Courtyard Paris, thought through staffing and economics, sourced and defined design solutions and then not had the mangement skills to carry through the work. Design management is rarely recognised nor reinforced as a positive management imperative.

    Doubletree has produced a fine hotel, well planned, well designed and already popular. If they can manage the design and planning elements in the next hotel then maybe they will be able to create a chain of very successful properties. Clear brief, good planning and design, and quality throughout will always create winners.

    TheWit is a winner.

    Architecture: Jackie Koo
    Interior Design: Cheryl Rowley
    Restaurant Design: The Johnson Studios

    All words & pictures copyright Patrick Goff

    Marine, Hermanus (Patrick Goff)

    1000 666 Daniel Fountain

    Take a rundown neglected old hotel in an underexposed seaside resort, inject a soupçon of good design and watch it flower again. The Liz McGrath collection is achieving fabled status in South Africa by using good design to raise hotels into the first rank of global competition. Their Cellars Hohenort in Constantia Cape Town has been one of the city’s leading hotels for many years, and I kept hearing from South African friends that the Marine was special, both in its location and in the quality of the interiors. So, climbing into a borrowed truck, I set out to see if it Liz McGrath’s design group could have done it again.

    Hermanus is a small seaside resort on Walker Bay, off the famous garden route that runs from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. One pleasant surprise from the start was an almost total absence of the electrified barbed wire which usually guarded gated estates. Neat housing developments have almost removed the ‘camps’ that so characterise areas like Hout Bay in Cape Town. Indeed driving into the town was a little like driving into some English seaside towns – a long road lined with housing, garages,churches, supermarkets and schools turning into narrow streets lined with fishmongers, restaurants, and all the typical small souvenir shops that characterise seaside resorts the world over.

    The Marine, Hermanus

    Bedroom at the Marine, Hermanus

    The hotel sits in a prime location on the cliff top overlooking the bay where it was built in the 1920s. It looked very cool, its white exterior reflecting sunlight set against the greyblue stormy sky on the rainy winter day I arrived. The hotel gardens are actually a public space through which meanders the cliff walk, where people strolled with their binoculars, whale spotting and taking the air. An odd note was struck by the sight of a brown mongoose running along the path and the bay was flecked with whitecaps and sprays of flume as whales vented.

    Entrance to the hotel was through a classical portico immediately inside which was the popular fish restaurant, the speciality restaurant of the hotel. To the right was the bar and lounge with whale bones on the wall as a reminder that Hermanus and this area have a long history supporting the fishing and whaling fleets going back into the 19th century. Huge windows overlooked the sea, and the building has had some major remodelling to open up the internal ground floor area to the narrow terrace and the views of the bay beyond the gardens.

    The protea is the national flower of South Africa and was abundantly present in the public areas, providing a dramatic display at the end of the reception corridor as a visual ‘stop’.

    Check in was smilingly efficient and we were taken to our room overlooking the bay. Almost immediately we saw a set of tail flukes flash, and realised that whale watching could comfortably be done from the bedroom window.

    Comfort was the key note. The refurbishment of the hotel, which has taken in the ground floor areas first, is being steadily rolled out through the bedrooms. On my visit over half had been finished.

    Housekeeping is excellent, and every hotelier knows that good housekeeping can extend the time between refurbishments by keeping an older scheme looking good for longer, and that is the case here. Where the rooms are new, this quality of care is maintaining a crispness to the furnishings which helps the stylish understated schemes impress.

    Rooms are good sized and have large en-suite bathrooms with walk-in showers and large soaking tubs. With the rooms at the front looking over the bay it would be easy to say these were the best rooms and indeed a number of suites are on the front of the building. The view from the front looks out into the bay, down onto the water barely 100 metres in front of the hotel, a whale main road.

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    Rooms at the inland side of the central corridor spine look onto the pool and give a more resort feel to the hotel – and where there is no pool to see, frequently the view is into gardens with weavers’ nests in the trees.

    Many of the rooms around the pool share a large terrace which runs around the building at first floor level and is large enough for generous tables and umbrellas to be used – when the weather suits. Even in the winter, as it was on my visit, the sun is hot and blue skies materialise with impressive speed, making the pool area attractive.

    Restaurant dining also spills onto a lower pool terrace and there is a single storey spa building to the rear. On one side of the pool is a function room – a very large boardroom style area for private dining, meetings and functions. These areas all make the pool their focus.

    The spa has a separate entrance which allows for a robust local business to grow. Under refurbishment on my visit, it is taking its design cues from other group spa’s and claiming the same spare elegance that drives the aesthetic in the bedrooms that have been refurbished. It is easy to see the growing family likeness with the newer bedrooms at Cellars Hohenort. Treatment rooms are quiet and restrained, lit by diffused sunlight through the blind-shaded windows giving a soft warm light.

    The main restaurant which also has a terrace area onto the pool, together with its own pre-dinner drinks bar, is striking in its simple elegance, with clever lighting again echoing that used so successfully elsewhere in the group. The qualities of the menu and service set this apart from most seaside hotel experiences and its quality would embarrass many European hotels that should share this level of sophistication, but frequently fall short. Staff take pride in their skills and have an awareness of them that mixes easily with South African informality to give an impressive level of service.

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    With lighting cleverly allowing the candlelight to play its part the evening ambience is in keeping, whilst the alternative speciality restaurant offering is more bistro in style. In the mornings the huge picture windows of the main restaurant change the feel, flooding it with light.

    This use of light and balance with candlelight is seen in the bar and its lounge. By day a typical seaside bar area with its terrace overlooking the sea, at night it transofrms into the sophisticated heart of a sophisticated restaurant and hotel operation.

    By night the lighting transforms the look of the spaces, the cleverly lit bar appearing almost to take its cues from the famous Blue Bar in the MayFair in London’s fashionable West End, unexpected in a small seaside resort.The saloon owes no part of its comfortable sophistication to elsewhere though, the open fire and strong use of imagery through to the colour of fabrics being a Liz McGrath hallmark design, with the focus very much on creating a comfortable guest environment.

    “local knowledge and designers will certainly make it difficult for the chain hotels to compete”

    The Liz McGrath Collection is one of the premier hotel groupings in South Africa, and have led the development of the tourism industry at a five star level for many years.

    Most of the staff area recruited and trained locally, given the opportunity to rise in the company and become leaders in the South African hospitality world. Using local and in house designers is also making the group a leader in design terms, something that has been recgnised by a steady stream of awards over the years.

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    Whilst major brands develop their presence in South Africa, local businesses are showing that they can compete not only at a local level, but win accolades on the global stage too as Liz McGraths Collection has done. This is true also of Red Carnation in Bushmans Kloof (despite its London Head Office the origins of the company are in South Africa)and Wilderness Hotels through their 60+ operations across the south of the continent, including Damaraland in Namibia, all of which work closely with local communities and locations.

    With regional tourism growing at 8 – 10 per cent a year (Tanzania in 2008 for example grew by 17+ per cent)the local knowledge and designers will certainly make it difficult for the chain hotels to compete on quality for a share of the market. On quality they will need to look hard at their self proclaimed standards against true five star service such as that epitomised by the Marine Hermanus

    Owner developer: Liz McGrath.
    Design leadership rests with Mrs. McGrath, but as with other strong leaders she has an equally strong team in her interior designers, who are Dawn Dickerson and Carmel Naude of Hotcocoa in Johannesburg.

    Words and Pictures ©Patrick Goff

    Hotel Missoni, Edinburgh (Patrick Goff)

    1000 666 Daniel Fountain

    Busy. Pink. Two words sum up first impressions of Hotel Missoni. The style is indeed Missoni and the styling has been done by Rosita Missoni of the eponymous Italian fashion house. However, in hotel terms style is not content.

    Key to making disparate ingredients work in hotel design is the management of the contributing parties. The Rezidor/Missoni approach is similar in some ways to that of Olga Polizzi with the Rocco Forte hotels where this formidable lady manages design very well. Rezidor’s experience of working with Cerrutti on a previous abortive effort to create a lifestyle brand will have been of assistance to its management process this time around.

    As with Rocco Forte Hotels the mix is a designer of the spaces, usually a good experienced interior designer, with a stylist who in this case is Rosita Missoni.The underlying functional design has been the responsibility of the Rezidor director of design Gordon Mckinnon, who has used a designer long familiar with Rezidor hotels, Matteo Thun & Partners for interior design, and Edinburgh’s Alan Murray Architects as architects.

    The first impressions are reinforced by design qualities that are knowing and recognise location. As a granite city, black, white and silver have been chosen as the underlying colour schemes for Edinburgh and I was told the sunnier colours would modify the approach in Cape Town (Note added Jan 2012: The Cape Town Missoni has failed because the banking crisis led to a collapse of the funding plan).

    Hotel Missoni, Edinburgh

    However, the colour here is far from grey, with broad brush strokes of colours such as pink and orange being used. These reinforce a family link with the primary colours used in Park Inn (see Liége for example).Furniture references include acknowledgement of Scottish designers particularly Rennie Macintosh, while design is reinforced by the use of Missoni apparel for the staff ‘uniforms’.

    The interior designer describes this hotel as a ‘sartorial work’ and as a business hotel. For Rezidor it seems to be more a lifestyle exercise, and pitched at a five star luxury level. Rezidor says it is “a true lifestyle hotel and by no means a dedicated business hotel brand” with the “Target audience: new consumerism. People who are well travelled, independent, design aware and share the brands passions about life, style and comfort. Style without show. Comfort with style.”

    I believe that for an hotel to deserve a five star rating it needs to offer both a convincing level of luxury and a level of choice for the guest. It needs to surprise and enchant both with the luxury of its rooms and the quality of the service provided, as well as the quality of the design, including design detailing. Does Missoni measure up to this definition of five star luxury, the level Rezidor maintain it is aimed at?

    It seems to me that here is a dichotomy – the hotel is certainly fashionable and enchants and surprises at that level, but at a more pragmatic level doesn’t seem to work as it should. The quality is perhaps not quite at the level it should be for a five star. Here baths are only available in suites, whilst the UK standards specify that, at four star even, half bathrooms should have a tub.I believe that for five star, the guest should have the choice within their room (a view confirmed by an informal survey I conducted recently).

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    In some five star hotels now the guest has his’n’her bathrooms offering these choices (see One & Only Cape Town), while some four stars have not only a walk-in shower but a whirlpool bath as the tub (see Hiltons Diagonal Mar, Barcelona), so here shower only standard bedrooms would seem to be inappropriate to the aspirations.

    Although the bedroom desks are quite large, they are almost ruled out as working desks by the presence of the television on them. The style of specified TV’s may have given a high visual and audio quality, but in my view they are too small. In the large suites the size of the screen also seems smaller compared to the standard rooms because of the distance from which it is viewed. In the suite bedroom the floor mounted television is difficult to see from in bed without sitting upright.

    There is a single small armchair in the standard bedroom but the operator would no doubt argue that as a lifestyle hotel it should be measured by different criteria to the criteria employed in other hotels, where two comfortable armchairs are the norm.

    Unfortunately, I think lifestyle should be about having more, not less, than normal so I would expect normal minimum standards to apply with the Missoni fashion style shaping a super offer, not being used to disguise a poorer offering.

    The most expressive use of the Missoni style appears to be in the break out areas for the meeting rooms, and in the bar area where functionality is not compromised and the Missoni brand adds excitement to the areas.

    Hotel Missoni, Edinburgh

    In bedrooms the driver appears to be the small floor footprint, and I would ask if the ultimate luxury is not space – other operators would agree with me with, for example, the smallest bedroom in a new One & Only being 63sqm. Certainly it is commonly thought that the bathroom is one of the major areas where a modern hotel can provide design drama that cannot be easily matched in the home, and providing shower only seems a retreat from the challenge.

    Of course it may be that Rezidor thinks, like Intercontinental with the Indigo brand and its small 19sqm bedrooms, that having fashionable design is enough to overcome small size as a factor for guests. Bear in mind of course that all hotels seek the repeat visitor who may well take their vote elsewhere second time around, and for whom size may matter. For the discerning guest any inadequacies in design will also register as negatives.

    Lighting design is interesting throughout, and while it appears to be handled well generally, in some areas it lacks finesse. Bathrooms are generally blasted with light, but in the suites there is a lack of controllability, and lighting is better thought through in the standard rooms.

    Corridor lighting works well with spotlighting of each room door to the bedrooms. I was suprised there appear to be no motion sensors to help with energy saving which I find a curious ommission given the cost savings these simple devices can achieve.

    The black, white and red used in the corridors is very dramatic (its use can also be seen successfully used in the competitor Andaz ‘lifestyle’ brand) but its impracticality is overloading the housekeeping team and it is already beginning to lose its sharpness as it accumulates dirty marks.

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    Similarly, paint finishes in bedrooms need attention already with stains, spills and knocks all taking their toll – in some hotels with paint finishes only, built into the maintenance budget is an allowance for repainting of a certain number of rooms every month.

    Seeing paint pots on housekeepers trolleys, which I have observed on other lifestyle hotels, doesn’t work, as usually to avoid a piebald finish the whole wall has to be repainted. Differentiation in price is not just to make extra profit but also to fund the increased maintenance it takes to keep a lifestyle looking stylish (I know a Bentley owner who has the car resprayed every year to remove stone chips – style perfection comes at a price).

    Despite the attractiveness of the large vases design wise and as a Missoni ‘trademark’, the lack of a street presence for the hotel bar fails to engage with the trendy ‘being seen to be trendy’ market effectively – and Friday Night Millionaires need to be seen.

    The Rezidor house style comes through quite strongly. The use of primary colours in chairs outside the meeting rooms echoes that in Park Inn, whilst the island reception desks are a Radisson Blu hallmark.

    For the brand to work as a five star luxury lifestyle brand I think it needs more luxury and more lifestyle. Everything needs to be more luxurious, softer, and with better designed seating everywhere. I was uncomfortable with the heights of seating in the relationship to tables. This could be solved easily by the use of cushions, and would also have enabled more of the signature Missoni fabrics to be used. It would also add more luxury whilst making banquette seating more functionally effective.

    With an hotel that is not geared for the business traveller (not even a high fashion stylish business traveller) the reliance must be placed on Missoni becoming the hotel of choice for affluent leisure travellers of all age groups. Underlying my criticism is the disappointment that the basic five star standards for the operational installation and room layouts is failing to support the stylish Missoni interiors. The colour and pattern is generally strikingly new and admirable but if the basic operational criteria is wrong then the result will disappoint.

    Hotel Missoni, Edinburgh

    The hotel is in a sharp piece of contemporary architecture that stands apart from its neighbours stylistically, but which has a presence and a personality lacking in many hotels. For the brand to succeed in the increasingly competitive and well designed lifestyle market, Rezidor need to ensure their design management processes can also deliver a five star hotel experience to back up the promise of the building and the Missoni brand.

    The tall pots in reception areas are spectacular and are a device that could be repeated elsewhere. If entrance is also intended from the courtyard too (accessed via the alley from the Royal Mile) then it needs more of a ‘come on’ and similar pots on the terrace would help create a presence here.

    Whilst the position of the bar is good, the ‘W’s, that set the trend for chain lifestyle branding, used the street windows to allow ‘Friday night millionaires’ to show off in the window. From the outside at night the pots are coloured by the yellow sodium street lights and some corrective lighting from the inside would add considerably to the drama at street level.


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    Words and images ©Patrick Goff
    Olive Grove Windhoek

    Olive Grove, Namibia (Patrick Goff)

    1000 667 Daniel Fountain

    Concrete is the last material I expect to see as part of the finishes in an hotel room. Oh I know that poured concrete is a modern construction material. I have worked on hotels where it has been a source of problems, seen it used in the construction of bathroom pods, so I’m familiar with its great qualities. But I have never seen it used as a polished finished material, where the construction kind of extrudes itself into making the bathtub, bedhead, vanity unit.

    Where the material also ingratiates itself as your floor and wall finishes, polished and with inset subtle pieces of coloured glass. Where white paint, white linen and white towels provide an almost ascetic aesthetic against which drama is provided by the play of light from African sun by day and metal lanterns at night.

    Bedroom in concrete Olive Grove Namibia 001

    In this quiet corner of Windhoek, Namibia’s small town capital, is the misnamed Guesthouse of the Olive Grove. Namibia is the country with almost the lowest population density in the world at roughly two people to every square mile, so creating an oasis in this town is unnecessary when there is so much country side to retreat to. So here we have a sophisticated urban boutique bridging the gap between western sophistication and wilderness that is the attraction in this country. The voter population of 1.18 million people is estimated to have over 110,000 of them working in the hospitality industry. As the country recovers from a brutal war of independence the government leads the conservation work backed by tremendous private effort. Effort that is epitomised not by large institutions but by individual such as the operators of this, one of Windhoek’s premier boutiques.

    I’d love to have seen more of Windhoek. The remnants of the colonial occupiers in the form of the German architecture, churches and even a castle are apparently remarkable. But this was only a transit point on the way to Review the lodges at Little Kulala, Damaraland and finally Ongava in this beautiful country. The five hour delay endured through Air Namibia robbed me of any time for tourism and my meetings, but I was fortunate that the interim accommodation in the form of this supposed guesthouse that is the Olive Grove set me in one of those places where one doesn’t mind getting stuck for a while.

    I say supposed guesthouse because this is so much more than just another guesthouse or B&B. There may be just a dozen rooms and three or four suites but they have been well planned and well thought through. The relaxation is encouraged, and although close to the centre of Windhoek the view from the terrace is over the countryside surrounding the town, its ridges and hills practically bare of settlement.

    As a transition from the bustle of Johannesburg or Cape Town, an adjustment from the frenetic pace of a European or American City, then a pause here is worthwhile before venturing to the Wilderness.

    The silence at night is almost as intense as the darkness that reveals the African night sky. Its dark cobalt is shot through with so many stars that their number is infinite. There are so so many that they in themselves are a wonder that we have lost in the light pollution of our great cities. A pause in travel gives time to slow down, to relearn the art of watching and listening.

    “terraces that look out across the newly planted 200 tree olive grove.”

    Dining Terrace Olive Grove Namibia 042

    Rooms are generously sized and have terraces that are shaded by horizontal blinds on runners that provide shade from the sun, terraces that look out across the newly planted 200 tree olive grove, and provide a perfect spot for reading or writing. There is a small plunge pool, for cooling off in the summer (our winter months – this is the Southern hemisphere) when it can get oppressively hot, surrounded by loungers to which smiling staff bring cold drinks.

    Lingering breakfasts are taken on a terrace where canvas curtains keep out the morning chill from a space heated by those ludicrous steel umbrella heaters that seem so pollutingly unnecessary in Europe but are so worthwhile here. Here too is the lounge where a drink can be taken before dinner, although the small kitchen makes for a small menu. True to the guesthouse roots the hotels will provide a taxi service to local restaurants, which include the Namibian Institute of Culinary Excellence, funded by a German safari outfit to train Namibians in the culinary arts.

    Learn the Namibians are too, not just the culinary arts but hosting and design. As experience grows so too does the ambition of Namibians working in our industry – not just the housekeeper who proudly asserted her intention of starting her own Guesthouse, but the owners who’s interior design touch grows more assured as they work on their building more. The new suite created overlooking their newly planted 200 tree Olive Grove is evidence of this growing confidence.

    A step up from the standard rooms, this uses more contemporary pieces to create a set of spaces that are stylish and comparable with suites anywhere. The space is large and rooms flow from entrance to lounge to bedroom through to bathroom and finally to the sun trap outside areas. With their outside cooling shower these very private areas are quiet and protected with the suite almost self contained from the hotel.

    Terrace to suite Olive Grove Namibia 065

    The entrance is set back off the plunge pool terrace, with dustily coloured fountain trickling water alongside. Entering the cool beyond the lobby decants into a lounge with floor to ceiling picture windows. The windows look onto the terrace and over a small private plunge pool, and have views overlooking the olives. The space is separated from the bedroom by the large flat screen TV and cupboard unit. Internal finishes are again the polished concrete of the rest of the building, with subtle variations on the colouring. These finishes are complemented by the natural materials used in the furnishings.

    The architecture and interior design I saw throughout Namibia used flowing forms where the very structures appeared to grow organically. Whilst breeze block construction ordered straight lines the thatch and tree trunk construction style insinuated itself in this urban environment with roofs and canopies frequently flowing following organic forms. With the nature of the climate dictating a flow between interior and exterior unfamiliar to those from northern Europe, space exploited natural light, ventilation and the use of water and plants.

    In art history I was taught there were early cultures in Africa that were totally based on the circle, where the square was not used.Certainly design seems more organic. Maybe too the closeness to nature everyone must be conscious of in Namibia reinforces the organic and natural content of design styles here. To use a much abused set of terms, they appear much more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Perhaps there is much to learn from here.


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    Words and Pictures ©Patrick Goff

    Premier Inn, Woking (Patrick Goff)

    1000 666 Daniel Fountain

    The British brewing industry has, in general, been a pretty miserable business management failure. However, two of the largest of the big brewers have been very successful in moving their business away from beers and pubs into hospitality. The famous Manet painting ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’, depicting the Bass triangle on bottles of Bass Pale Ale, perhaps hints that Bass was the first to make the transition, culminating with its purchase of Holiday Inn and growing successfully into the world’s largest hotel operator, InterContinental Hotels Group.

    Whitbread was a famous brewing name and for many years grew by acquiring (and pledging to keep) many idiosyncratic UK brewers such as the Boddington’s brewery in Manchester. However at some point the management realised that this romantic real ale traditionalist view of the industry was not going to work profitably in the face of the continuous decline in beer drinking in the UK. Eventually the group followed Bass in moving its mainstream business out of brewing and into the broader realm of Hospitality. Now Whitbread has a spread of half a dozen brands, including the UK’s largest budget chain, Premier Inn, with a continuous programme of expansion in the UK, Ireland, and now Dubai and India.

     

    Premier Inn Woking

    Premier Inn Woking

    The expansion of the group is underpinned by the maintenance of profitability in the budget sector during the 2009 recession with underlying profits falling only around three per cent. Whilst there has been a great deal of publicity for the fight between Travelodge and Premier for the title of Britain’s leading budget chain, it perhaps a little unfair to see Travelodge as the primary competitor for the Whitbread chain. More appropriately it might be better to consider Premier Inn as a competitor for Campanile or even possibly Holiday Inn, as unlike Travelodge and other budget operators such as Ibis orEtap, Premier offers a full food service using its associated restaurant operations such as Beefeater or one of the other of its six brands in the food sector.

    Premier Inn Woking is built at the side of Woking canal in a quiet location. Woking in Surrey is a surprising town growing from a market garden centre to today’s hi-tech home to McLaren and Directory company Wandsworth. The growth of the town was spurred first by the canal then by the railways and today it has a thriving local business community as well as strong commuter links into London. The architecture of the hotel is deliberately evocative of canal side warehousing with a little of farm buildings influence, all built around a previously existing canal side pub restaurant.

    Those who are not familiar with Whitbread eateries may be surprised at the change being wrought in the food operation. Many hotels could learn good lessons from the healthy breakfast options, and the healthy nature of much of the offerings in the remaining meals, despite the reputation of these operations for old fashioned English pub catering. English food has changed greatly over the last 15 years and Whitbread has moved with the tide whilst keeping traditional. The standard English breakfast may still be the main offering, but not only is the healthy alternative available, but it is also given at a very competitive price. Like Travelodge, which grew out of its affinity with Little Chef and who’s menus have been so publicly reworked recently, Premier Inn took path of adding bedrooms where they had an existing pub food outlet, becoming a new twist to the tradition of the English Inn and taking many design cues from its origins.

    The food operation therefore may well be pub eatery based, but the majority of the meats are char grilled, one of the healthiest ways to prepare meat. The design also remains steadfastly linked to traditional pub design, with dark timbers, hard floors and all the other touches that make pub dining the English equivalent to the Italian trattoria in its implementation of traditional folk design. It is from these roots that traditions in hotel keeping have grown. Whether from the German Gasthaus, French Pension, or English Inn the image of ‘mine host’ in an apron greeting a traveller to his inn is the hallmark of expectation for a guest.

    Premier Inn Woking rooms

    Rooms at the Premier Inn, Woking

    Measured against this image, the Premier Inn did not fail. A smiling and friendly greeting conformed to the expectation – an expectation more superior hotels fail to meet (as Olga Polizzi once observed to me, “if you can’t smile at the guest, why work in hospitality?”) Reception is minimalist but functions effectively. The explanations of the food operation, the offer of a daily paper, were clear, simple and offered with enthusiasm. When pressed, the staff across the whole operation were fulsome in their praise of Whitbread as an employer, and the hotel operation was testimony to the effectiveness of the brand management and training.

    Whitbread offer a clear money back guarantee if the guest doesn’t get a comfortable clean room and a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately here the new extension, whilst offering new design rooms, has been located badly alongside the car park entrance to the busy restaurant. The result is noise complaints from rooms overlooking the exit from the car park. There must be a good reason why the architect did not position the building nearer to the canal, which despite the busy road on the other side, would probably have been a quieter solution. However the rooms in the main hotel block were very quiet, overlooking a school playing field complex and abutting the canal – now a strip of nature that makes the walk into Woking centre a delightful expedition.

    The corporate colours of violet and yellow are handled with subtlety, and the rooms are fitted out to the standard pattern, with en-suite bathrooms. The new design has the current fashion for large bedhead and LED bedhead lights. The work desk is large and there is free Wifi with simple connection and the desk has the sockets sensibly placed for easy access. Design is unremarkable, simple but effective. Lighting is adequate, as is the bathroom, if slightly dull.
    If the competition is considered to come from Holiday Inn then the price differential , with Premier competing on price with Travelodge, is essential as the Holiday Inn interiors are far superior. Here the offering is comparable to the Travelodge chain and there is surely potential here for the rooms to be taken slightly more upmarket, as this position would be supported by the in-house food operation so missing from most Travelodges (although the revamped Little Chef may offer the competition).
    If Campanile achieve their early target of 60 outlets of the quality we have reviewed in Swindon and Northampton, then both of these UK budget leaders could face a severe challenge from Barry Sternlicht’s revival of the French brand.

    Premier Inn Woking

    Bar area at the Premier Inn, Woking

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    © Words and images by Patrick Goff

    Casegoods, reception desk, meeting room furniture etc. by AMS Group official supplier to all UK Premier Inns

    Scottish Highlander, Scotland

    Scottish Highlander (Huw Kidwell, Tracey Kifford)

    1000 750 Daniel Fountain

    To look into the increasing popularity of small and personal luxury cruises in 2009 we headed to Scotland to sample a cruise along the Great Glen, from Inverness towards Fort William. The route took us through the eerie blackness of Loch Ness, along the rivers Ness, Spean and Lochy and the 29-lock Caledonian Canal on the luxury barge the ‘Scottish Highlander’.

    The scenery in this area of Scotland is stunning and visits to historic sites such as Glencoe, Cawdor Castle (setting for Macbeth) and Ben Nevis were all included as part of the cruise. During the week long cruise the barge slowly traversed the Caledonian Canal stopping at Loch Ness, Fort Augustus, Laggan, Gairlochy and Fort William. At each of the stops a tour of the nearest attractions was arranged in conjunction with passenger preferences and the weather. The barge carries six mountain bikes onboard for guest use as well as a Zodiac-type boat for excursions, fishing tackle for fly-fishing opportunities and binoculars for wildlife study and bird-watching (golf was also possible).

    The Scottish Highlander is a 200 tonne Luxe motor barge that was originally built in 1931 in Holland. The barge was renovated in 1991for use as a hotel cruiser and transferred to Inverness, Scotland (she began to carry passengers in April 1993). In 1999 the barge was acquired by European Waterways and again refurbished in 2006 to a luxury standard, rechristened as the Scottish Highlander and began a career as a luxury cruise barge. She is 117ft long with a beam of 16.5ft, a height of 11.5ft and a draft of 4.6ft and can carry eight passengers in three double/twin staterooms (115ft²) and one suite (150ft²) situated below deck. The upper deck has a forward sitting area for passenger use, while the aft area is occupied by crew cabins, the wheelhouse and the galley.

    The barge operates with a crew of four including the captain, a chef, a tour guide and the front of house hostess with a leisurely cruising speed of 4 knots and a maximum speed of 10 knots. The social centre of the Scottish Highlander for the passengers is the main saloon which has a bar and the galley at one end with a polished walnut dining table set for eight (wooden chairs upholstered in blue velveteen). The other end of the saloon has red leather chesterfield style club chairs and sofas along with dark wood occasional tables, reproduction brass lamps, fresh flowers and coffee table. The salon has large windows all around providing natural lighting during the day and seven brass/frosted glass wall light fixtures for evening lighting.

    Scottish Highlander, Scotland
    The walls and ceiling of the salon are panelled in a light sapele, with a mahogany dado rail and coving. They are adorned with nautical displays as well as black and white prints of the Caledonian Canal and marine charts. One wall also had the great Scottish cliché — a print of ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ by Landseer. The floor is covered in a blue and green tartan plaid carpet but there is also light yew wooden flooring in some areas. The room always has several current newspapers laid out for guest perusal each day and a small library for guest use (books and CDs) along with some board games and a stereo system.

    Scottish Highlander, Scotland
    At the galley end of the salon a sideboard is laid with Scottish tea time treats and a selection of fruit. The bar is included in the price as well as unlimited fresh tea and coffee throughout the day with a coffee machine on standby as well as a full size water cooler. Guests arriving are met with a champagne reception and high tea is served every day accompanied with freshly baked scones and sandwiches made from homemade bread The food onboard was superbly prepared (using fresh Scottish produce) and accompanied by an excellent selection of wine and single malt whiskys.

    The three double cabins were decorated to a high standard with a similar mahogany and sapele panelling effect to the saloon. Beds were made up in red/blue plaid tartan duvets and blankets. The cabins gave ample space for conversion from two singles to a double bed and there was plenty of closet space, with storage drawers under the beds as well. There were two portholes one of which could be opened. The dark mahogany bedside tables were equipped with reading lamps and gave a good spot to rest a glass of water and a book in the night. Fresh towels were provided each day along with mineral water, shortbread and miniature chocolates. Cabin walls were decorated with typical ‘knots and yachts’ pictures.

    The bathroom facilities contained a shower, corner fitting white toilet cistern and were finished to an excellent standard. Antique style brass taps on the wash hand basin, cream ceramic tiles on the walls and brass fittings were functional and comfortable. In addition the bathroom had shelves for complimentary toiletries and a good sized mirror. The three cabins and the larger suite were named after famous Scottish clans with the Fraser, Macpherson,Cameron (suite) and Mackintosh coats of arms on each door along with the family tartan and motto.

    This was a well appointed and comfortable barge with something for everyone, incredible food and a real compliment to Scotland showing just how much there is to see and do in that wonderful country.

    Words and pictures by Huw Kidwell and Tracey Kifford